Bristol: An unlikely gourmet destination

With a poor record for fine dining, Bristol sounds an unlikely gourmet destination. But a quiet revolution is currently taking place. Philip Sweeney visits the city's newest eateries and finds out what's cooking
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The Independent Travel

Surreptitiously, a restaurant opened last week which is predicted to become the flagship of Bristol's gastronomic Great Leap Forward. Probably not since the release of local megastar Russ Conway's Party Pops LP has a launch attracted such feverish media interest in the city, so it was cunning of Bordeaux Quay to announce its opening for September and then start doing business last Monday morning.

At 10am, the great concrete-pillared 1920s warehouse was bustling, mainly with staff though a handful of punters consumed coffee and fresh croissants in the airy downstairs brasserie. Chef and proprietor Barny Haughton, who also owns Bristol's acclaimed Quartier Vert restaurant, checked in supplies and finalised lunch menus - spaghetti bolognese, steak tartare and chips, Italian fish stew. By 8pm, the upstairs restaurant, in subdued grey, aubergine and lime overlooking the harbourside was seeing action. The setting sun gilded the trees through the panoramic windows as diners tested courgette-flower risotto, home-made charcuterie, ballotine of chicken and wild rabbit, and poached Cornish halibut Hollandaise.Voluminous flowers set off the walnut serving stations. Haughton only has to keep this up to the tune of £4m turnover a year and he's got a hit on his hands.

Bristol and haute cuisine do not have a history of easy co-existence, however. The Michelin two-star Lettonie, which was set rather wonderfully in a 1930s terrace shop, has relocated to Bath for lack of custom in Bristol. The long-running Harvey's, designed by Conran with a historic monument of a wine cellar, has given up the ghost.

Bristol does have a track record for good demotic food, and it is this that is getting stronger. In the Sixties, Keith Floyd started his series of excellent little bistros that used to go broke quicker than you could say "moussaka and a litre of red, and do help yourself to a glass, Keith," but raised a generation of Bristolians' gastronomic horizons before disappearing. Latterly, Culinaria, the restaurant and traiteur run by chef Stephen Markwick, has provided first-rate European bourgeois standards, including a tarragon chicken pie of mouth-watering succulence. Bristol even has wacky creativity. In Bell's, a cosily attractive former grocer's shop, the Heston Blumenthal of St Paul's, Chris Wicks, seduces your palate with slow-cooked belly pork or pea risotto before throwing a googly of vindaloo ice cream with popadom wafers. Antidotes may be found among the gargantuan café fry-ups, champagne bars, restaurant terraces and neo-Georgian club lounges of Goldbrick House, the other big newcomer this August. Don't overlook the Moroccan bistros of Easton and Totterdown, nor the St Nicholas Market stalls: the best pastries in Bristol from the Portuguese lady, and ackee and saltfish from her Jamaican neighbour.

One factor unites many of these operations: a commitment to organic, local production. The Soil Association, one of the organic movement's regulators and lobbyists, is based here, and the South-west contains a higher proportion of the UK's organic food producers than any other region.

Bristol has a particularly large stock of allotments, two farmers' markets, and the UK's only Slow Food Market, a monthly event where line-caught Brixham seafood rubs shoulders with Devon wild beef and the merest hot dog has a pedigree. In September, all that is slow, and with a bit of luck tasty, is celebrated in the Organic Food Festival.

Not all of Bristol's food culture is organic, of course, nor indeed positive. A plague of carbon-copy cafés with panini-filled chill cabinets continues to blight the cityscape. But omens show critical mass may be shifting for the better. "Doing good and resisting evil," is the motto on the bronze statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol's centre, and the great statesman is looking towards Bordeaux Quay, just a touch gluttonously.

The Organic Food Festival (0117-314 5000; soilassociation.org/festival) takes place on 2 and 3 September. Bordeaux Quay, Canon's Way (0117-906 5550; bordeaux-quay.co.uk). Culinaria, 1 Chandos Road (0117-973 7999; culinariabristol.co.uk). Bell's, 1 York Road (0117-924 0357; bellsdiner.co.uk). Goldbrick House, 69 Park Street (0117-945 1950; goldbrickhouse.co.uk). Slow food (0800 917 1232; slowfood.com). Further information: Visit Bristol (0906 711 2191; visitbristol.co.uk)

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