I first met Sam and Becky not long after I moved to Bristol. I’d gone along to their supper club and was so taken with what they were doing, it actually inspired me and my ex-partner, Elly to start our own supper club, The Basement, which we ran for two years.
Apart from Sam and Becky’s food, which was excellent, what impressed me most whenever I talked to them was their almost single-minded dedication to someday owning and running their own restaurant. They obviously really wanted it.
Determined to learn as much as they could, and make it happen, Sam did some training as a butcher and then as a baker, before undertaking a career as a chef whilst Becky worked as a waitress in a couple of cracking Bristol restaurants, Culinaria and Flinty Red. A couple of years ago, they both moved to London and worked in some seriously good places, Sam at the St John Hotel and 40 Maltby Street, Becky at Hawksmoor and the Quality Chop House, before recently moving back to Bristol, having learnt loads and still determined to open their own place.
I ran into Sam a few months back and he told me he’d found a site, South of the river, over near the Tobacco Factory and that he and Becky were doing the majority of the building work and fitting out themselves.
That was then, this is now and wouldn't you know, all that work and determination has finally paid off. Sam and Becky opened their own restaurant, Birch last week and I'm seriously frigging delighted to say that it’s superb.
I wouldn't normally write a review based on a soft opening, it’s not really fair on the restaurant to judge them while they’re ironing out a myriad of unforeseen opening weekend problems, but the crew at Birch absolutely nailed it, hit the ground running and didn't put a foot wrong, so here it is.
Located on the corner of Rayleigh and Birch Roads (hence the name) and just down the street from The Tobacco Factory, it’s a little off the beaten track. It’s a real neighbourhood restaurant location, but is so bloody good it should be drawing people in from all over the city and beyond.
The interior is very plain, very white, with a small bar at the back and 50’s style Formica topped tables. Massive windows on both sides of the dining room, flood the space with light. It all feels a bit Scandinavia via Hackney, which is no bad thing.
The menu however is rooted very much in Britain with excellent local, seasonal produce featuring heavily. Except that Sam and Becky have taken it a step further and have secured an allotment space where they’re growing their own fruit and vegetables for the restaurant.
The food itself is, unsurprisingly given Sam’s background, very much recognisable in the style of St John. Fergus Henderson’s very British, unfussy manner rubs off heavily on anyone who has served time in one of his kitchens (I ate at Lyle’s in Shoreditch a couple of days later and the influence is obvious there too). However, Sam’s food is much less Spartan with more of a flourish and I like that. The food at St John is undoubtedly excellent but can be pretty uncompromising to look at.
With a trio of nibbles, three starters, three mains, a small selection of ices, puddings and a local cheese, the menu is perfectly formed, short and concise.
Kicking the meal off with a bone dry Manzanilla sherry I picked at an assortment of snacks, excellent anchovy biscuits which were deliciously salty with just a subtle fishy hit on the finish. Fresh radishes with a herb mayonnaise, a particular favourite of mine and devilled almonds, perfectly complimenting the sherry although I reckoned these needed a bit more of a pokey chilli whack.
I have to mention the bread and the butter, both made by Sam at the restaurant and both bloody lovely.
A starter of duck and pork pie, chicory, hazelnut and mustard salad however was absolutely faultless. Perfect pastry, encasing quivering redcurrant jelly surrounding an offal tinged slab of duck and pork. Holy Moly, it was seriously good.
My mate, Jemma meanwhile was scoffing a plate of asparagus, hot butter and crumbs, which by all accounts was every bit as good as it sounds. I didn't get a picture, you’ll just have to imagine what that looked like.
At the end of the year, when I'm mulling over meals past, I strongly suspect that my next course of roast hogget leg, mash, chard and anchovy sauce will easily rank up there as one of the best things I ate all year. The lamb was so beautifully cooked, solid slabs of dusky pink meat surrounded by a dark burnished crust, I was certain it must have been cooked sous-vide (I was wrong, it was roasted in a low oven). Combined with the umami punch of the anchovy sauce, perfect mash (I'm a mash fiend, believe me when I say it was perfect) and colourful buttery chard, the whole thing was pretty near as dammit perfect as its possible to be and absolutely beautiful to look at.
Across the table, Jemma was feeling similarly emosh about her plate of hake, brown crab, Cornish new potatoes and spring onions. I cadged a sneaky forkful and yep, it was as lovely as it looked.
On a roll and taking no prisoners, I demolished a scoop of marmalade and whisky ice cream, which had a suitably satisfying whack of both ingredients. Lovely.
I then moved onto a rather nice treacle tart with clotted cream before finishing off with a plate of Bath Soft cheese and crackers whilst my friend Jemma looked on aghast at the gout taunting gluttonous display of excess, playing out opposite.
When people ask where they should eat in Bristol, there’s just three places I always recommend. My personal favourites, Bell’s Diner, Wallfish and Flinty Red. After this meal, I'm going to add a fourth, Birch.
It’s that good.
Sam is a superb chef, he obviously adores what he’s doing, his food is frigging excellent, both he and Becky have worked really hard to achieve their dream and that passion, that drive and that love for what they’re doing shines through.
Go and enjoy it.
47 Raleigh Road,
Telephone: 01179 028 326