Friday, 11 March 2011

Review: No.1 Harbourside, Bristol

It is almost a year since No.1 Harbourside opened beneath the Watershed cinema in the heart of Bristol's dockland area.
The second project for Coexist, the sustainable, creative collective behind the hugely successful Canteen and Hamilton House across town on Stokes Croft, this café bar and restaurant has brought something fresh and exciting to the waterfront.
In a stretch of the docks that has for years been dominated by brash bars and chains, No.1 Harbourside has been a breath of cool independence.
If nothing else, it has attracted a different crowd of drinkers – by which I mean people who go for fun and enjoyment, not drinking 12 pints of lager and spoiling for a fight.
It hasn’t been the easiest transformation, but then major changes like this don’t happen overnight.
In its first year, No.1 Harbourside has had to find its feet and gauge exactly what people want. It was never going to be simply transplanting the unique Stokes Croft spirit into a city centre bar.
For a start, there are no residents – part of the success of The Canteen is that it is used by the people living in the area – and much more passing trade, especially curious tourists and city visitors.
Whilst No.1 Harbourside has gained a reputation as a bar with quality live music most nights, it has struggled to become a food destination.
My early experiences of the food on offer were not memorable and even though the chefs were creative and introduced a locally-sourced tapas menu, the food tended to promise more than it delivered.
There were occasions over the past year when eyebrows were raised at such dishes as parsnip ‘three ways’ and pheasant trifle – two perfect examples of chefs cooking for themselves, rather than the people who pay their wages (the public).
Thankfully, there has been a major reshuffle at No.1 Harbourside and a new menu and kitchen team launched last week.
The owners have gone back to the drawing board and returned to the original plan of offering a short menu that is both affordable and accessible.
This means, out with the pheasant trifle and in with the house mussels with black pepper fries (£5), along with four daily specials scratched on a small chalkboard above the long bar.
The new menu from ex-Canteen chef Rhys Williams comes with the tagline of ‘eat something wholesome every day’, with dishes described as ‘square meals’ – a quaint term that belongs to a pre-fast food era.
Not only is there more of an emphasis on simpler food and a commitment to locally sourced ingredients (the aim is 90%), but value for money is key here and to prove the point every diner gets a free bowl of soup with slices of homemade organic bread before the main course arrives.
On the lunchtime I popped in, a hot bowl of well-made leek and potato soup arrived as I supped my pint of Stroud Brewery’s hoppy Budding ale – one of four local beers on offer.
The short menu read very well indeed – pan-fried fillet of grey mullet with lemon and chive butter (£7), bubble and squeak cake with homemade ketchup (£6) and duck casserole with pearl barley and mushrooms (£8) being the three main dishes I bypassed en route to ordering what was described as ‘giant pork chop with sage and apple sauce’ (£9).
Giant is an understatement. About an inch and a half thick, with an inch of sweet fat around the edge, this bone-in chop took up most of the plate.
The meat was juicy, impressively tender and boasted a genuine farmyard porkiness. The sage and apple sauce was a little shy and could have made itself known more but the unadvertised curly kale and sautéed potatoes were spot-on. For £9, it was excellent value, free soup or not.
I couldn’t see any desserts on offer, but there are cakes for those who still feel hungry. There are also bar snacks in the evening, including oysters.
When I reviewed No.1 Harbourside in the first week of opening last year, I wasn’t that impressed with the food and I thought the kitchen was trying too hard to impress.
The new menu and concept is much more on track. By offering generous portions of simply cooked food, it is finally achieving its original aim of making local, seasonal and organic produce something for the masses and not just the middle classes. That in itself is something to celebrate and reason enough to support No.1 Harbourside.

No.1 Harbourside, 1 Canons Road, Bristol, BS1 5UH. Tel: 0117 9291100.

* An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Bristol Evening Post and Metro newspapers

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