February 2014 marked the third anniversary of Canapés, Cupcakes and Cocktails and, as ever, I'm excited about what the coming months will bring for us foodies! In case this is your first visit (if not, welcome back), I'm a 20-something kitchen-shy female who adores good food and loves eating out...In return for my inability to create culinary genius for myself, I promise to share with you my experience of each restaurant, café, bar or other in which I set foot...

...so, let's go out!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Cuban, Bristol

Given that it's a relatively new addition to Bristol's gastronomical line-up, I was eager to sample The Cuban's culinary offerings – a menu which, encapsulating the spirit of Havana, promises 'delicious recipes' that constitute an extensive line-up of tapas and authentic Cuban dishes.
Date and Time: Tuesday 22nd July 2014, 19:30
Name of Establishment: The Cuban*
Location: Building 11, Harbourside, Bristol
Reason for Visit: An eight-part get-together...friends, colleagues and couples!
Moving inside after a giant cloud of Cuban cigar smoke engulfed our alfresco drinking experience, my friends and I took our table amidst the well-populated dining area of The Cuban - first impressions proving altogether positive given the upbeat ambiance which, comprising happy chatter and a Latin soundtrack, appropriately mirrored the smiley service that ensued. We had arrived five minutes before the Happy Hour had ended so managed to bag ourselves a couple of cheeky half-price cocktails from a selected menu. As their more elaborate concoctions were reserved for full-price consumption, we settled for trusty Caipirinhas which, served long, were not quite in keeping with the 'traditional' format but had nevertheless been accurately executed, (in that, the alcohol content remained reassuringly potent!) The rum menu is clearly the star of the show however, showcasing well-over 100 rums from around the world (comparable, you might say, only to The Rummer’s* collection) and costing between £3.50 and £13.50 a short.

Although we sat next to a pretty sizeable party of mid-week merry-makers, I would suggest that a 50-minute wait for one's dinner is somewhat tortuous to say the least! This waiting game extended to those ordering their drinks at the bar and also to those who ordered their drinks from the table – though curiously, we were granted a complimentary Mojiito as, we were informed, the bar staff had made 'one-too-many' (yet this was prior to the arrival of the three which we initially ordered...not that we were complaining!) it's fair to say that we were unanimously ravenous in the face of the main event; my Chorizo and Beef Burger (£11.95) practically inhaled and particularly well-received. Its accompaniments were attentively plated and tasty; the ‘Cuban slaw’ surprisingly spicy and the Peri Peri fries plentiful and crisp. That said, the emmental that I opted to add to my burger (for £1.50) was all-but non-existent and the salt content of the dish as a whole must have been considerably high in light of the raging thirst that woke me repeatedly throughout the night! The Chocolate and Chorizo Chilli Beef (£11.95) was also considered an ample choice as it was rich-tasting and creatively presented within a crispy tortilla shell. Blackbean rice, plus portions of sour cream and guacamole, completed the ensemble and constituted a dish both wholesome and delicious. On the whole, we were pleased with the quality of the cuisine – that is, until the Seafood Paella Creole made an entrance… Shared between two, this was decidedly bland; both in terms of its appearance and taste. You might even say that the fishy bits (namely; clams, shelled mussels, king prawns, baby octopus and calamari) were still swimming given the watery disposition of the rice - the key factor which actually made this an inedible defeat. It goes without saying that the paella was returned to the kitchen and I’m pleased to report that the waiting staff were altogether apologetic and immediately removed the dish from our bill – along with the aforementioned Mojiitos which we eventually received. That said, as a venue offering an ‘all-you-can-eat’ paella night (which is Thursday if you're game), it is a little worrying; though, with the plethora of deals that run during the week (plus their partnership with Jongleurs which comes into effect on the weekend), there are plenty of alternative nights on which to visit. In my view, Wednesday is your best bet as it’s their 2 for 1 ‘Fiesta Night’ whereby main meals and cocktails are buy-one-get-one-free. The Happy Hour which typically runs from 16:00 until 19:00, is extended until close on a Wednesday too so there really isn’t a reason not to partake in a few après-office drinky poos now, is there?! Salsa Sundays are also a good shout if you fancy throwing some shapes with those in the know – this takes place from 17:00 until late and welcomes dancers of all abilities!
In conclusion, I’m not sure I’d return in a hurry, at least not for dinner…Though the vast rum collection and cocktail menu do make for a pretty sound watering hole, I think that those at the helm of The Cuban have been blind-sided by their daily-deal incentives and should, instead, focus on their menu; ensuring quality throughout. For, a few tweaks here and there would no doubt drive this hit and miss culture towards a reliable dining experience.

And now for the second (collective) opinion…
The Group awarded The Cuban a disappointing 4/10 and in three words, described the experience as simply, 'not good enough'...


Monday, 12 May 2014

Pizza Express, Bristol Harbourside (The Express Lunch Menu)

As a household name and with approximately 400 restaurants located country-wide, the chances that you've experienced Pizza Express in at least one of its varying capacities is incredibly likely. Yet, you may not be aware of the brand-new Express Lunch menu which is currently being trialled from Monday to Friday in selected outlets. The intention is to deliver light, tasty and affordable fare within the confines of one's lunch-hour; a concept which I'm confident will appeal to the masses of nearby businesses given the multitude of office-types that dashed past the window, pre-packed sandwich in hand, whilst my lovely mum and I enjoyed a far more civilised affair. 

Date and Time: Thursday 8th May 2014, 13:00 
Name of Establishment: Pizza Express* 
Location: Unit 1, Building 8, Harbourside, Bristol, 
Reason for Visit: An invitation to sample the 'Express Lunch' Menu 

Settling at our aforementioned table-for-two with a view, M and I noted the light, airy quality of the space. The rain, which had soaked us on route from the centre, became a distant memory in light of the friendly service and a rich, buzzy ambiance; the latter constituting the establishment's varied clientèle and the hustle and bustle emitted from its open-plan kitchen. That said, I have to mention the mix-up that occurred upon our arrival whereby it transpired that our reservation had been all but lost as the online system had crashed. I therefore had to explain the purpose of my visit – basically, that I had been invited, on a complimentary basis, to sample the Express Lunch menu in return for a comprehensive review – rather uncomfortable for those involved and not at all a case of...do you know who I am?! Awkwardness aside, our server (Kasia) was both amiable and efficient; guiding M and I towards her favourites from the menu and encouraging us to begin with drinks and olives, (not that we took a lot of convincing). You might say that, a bold Merlot (£4.35) for M and a crisp Pinot Grigio spritzer (£4.75) for yours truly wasn't particularly in keeping with the return-to-work role play we had undertaken – yet, in reality and seemingly unlike a lot of our fellow diners, we had the luxury of time given that we didn't actually have to return to a workplace – win!
On to the menu itself and options which are priced from as little as £3.45. The soups - Tomato & Basil and Roasted Butternut & Parsley - were not available during our visit and yet, coupled with the venue's signature dough (hand-rolled, slow-baked and served with garlic butter), would no doubt satisfy a smaller appetite, (though perhaps not entirely suit an afternoon with any form of one-on-one contact...hello garlic breath!) 'Romanita' pizzas and lunchtime salads have also been appropriately portioned to typify a hearty snack as opposed to a hefty nosh-up. Both M and I opted for one of the new Piadinas (£4.95); the self-proclaimed 'pick of the bunch' comprising the venue's famous dough which is baked with Gran Moravia cheese, sliced and filled with a multitude of fresh ingredients. I chose the Italian Meat Piadina which had been layered, rather liberally, with cured Finocchiona, Milano, Coppa, light mozzarella, sun-dried tomato, rocket, pesto and finally, drizzled with a good quality olive oil. The explosion of flavours which ensued proved perfectly balanced in terms of texture and taste – not to mention, absolutely delicious! M decided upon the Chicken Avocado Piadina which was as equally well-received. We also shared a portion of polenta chips (£2.35) which, sprinkled with parmesan and plated alongside a punchy honey and mustard dipping sauce, were the perfect accompaniment to our Piadinas – though personally, I'd advise against sharing if your appetite allows! 

At present, the a la carte menu is offered in addition to the Express Lunch menu which I thought may compromise the speed of delivery in terms of the dishes that we ordered but I'm pleased to say that this wasn't the case. That said, the open-plan kitchen meant that M and I could ogle at the chefs in action; the frantic duo managing the workload admirably. Though had the restaurant proved any busier, I think they may well have struggled. 

We concluded the afternoon's eating with a 'mini dessert' each to accompany our cappuccino; for me, the Double Chocolate Espresso Torta with its bitter-sweet ganache and crunchy biscuit base and for M, the home-made Chocolate Fudge Cake which, served chilled, wouldn't have necessarily been my bag but was nonetheless, exactly as billed and, I’d suggest, thoroughly enjoyed! Moreover, for an extra £2 when ordering a hot drink, these not-so bite-sized puds are fantastic value for money and an ideal way to round-up a lighter-lunch for those with a sweet tooth! 
All in all, I'd suggest that the Express Lunch menu has achieved exactly what it set out to do. Although larger appetites remain catered for as per the a la carte menu, the initial objectives have almost certainly been met via a ‘light, tasty and affordable’ assortment of dishes. Plus, although on this occasion, M and I had time on our side, we agreed that we could have easily tailored our visit to adhere to the confines of one’s working-day; altogether owing to our prompt server, the hard-work of those in the kitchen and most importantly, the appropriate simplicity of the lunchtime fare. If only I could move my office into the hubbub of the city centre from its secluded Bristol suburb in order to ditch my home-made sarnies in favour of the appetising alternatives contained within this nine-to-five-friendly menu! 

And now for the second opinion...
Mum gave the Express Lunch menu a rating of 9/10 and in three words, described the fare as, ‘perfect lunchtime cuisine’.


Friday, 2 May 2014

Sizzling Pubs – The Blue Bowl, Hanham

Given the multitude of Sizzling pubs across the UK (‘Sizzling’ being a trading name within the Mitchells & Butlers franchise), it proved rather coincidental that I was invited to sample the newly-launched Spring menu at the Blue Bowl in Hanham; a pub so often frequented during the throes of my childhood (post drinking-age I’ll hasten to add) given its proximity to my parents’ house. Over the years, I’ve witnessed this establishment undergo a number of changes; transforming from its historical stance (as a pub dating back to the 1300s; notable even, in the Doomsday Book) to Brewer's Fayre favourite;'The Mill House' and back again before its most recent re-launch as a Sizzling pub. Since the onset of the latter, I simply hadn't gotten around to visiting; that is, until a timely RSVP on my part denoted an evening within the parameters of my old stomping-ground – an evening which unfolded as follows…

Date and Time: Tuesday 29 April 2014, 18:30 
Name of the Establishment: The Blue Bowl (Sizzling pubs)* 
Location: 178 High Street, Bristol 
Reason for Visit: An invitation to check out Sizzling Pubs' brand new Spring menu with a collection of my nearest and dearest in tow! 

My initial thought upon arriving at this venue was that, although remaining mindful of its roots, those at the helm of the Blue Bowl’s development had weakened the character of this pub in favour of a well-furnished, contemporary space. Although my dining companions and I were reasonably educated in regards to the history of the pub and the surrounding area (noting, with interest, the escapades of local tyrant, ‘Dick Boy’ from the guide which made its way to our table) we agreed that, nowadays, this is an establishment intended primarily as a restaurant; the focus on affordable fare constituting an air of accessibility whereby families can eat-out alongside those merely in the market for a drink or two. Prior to this visit, I’d anticipated a Wetherspoon-style domain but despite the comparable 'daily deals' (Sweet-tooth Tuesday anyone?) and the discounted drinks which blink before the eyes of visitors to the website, this really didn’t feel like a cheap and cheerful boozer. In fact, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the quality that ensued; both in terms of the overall ambiance and the drinks/dishes which materialised over the course of the evening. It’s worth noting here that the menus for the Blue Bowl are standard Sizzling pub menus and are available, on the large part, within its equivalent eateries throughout the region - we’re talking family-friendly pub grub with options to suit every palate.
Multiple Menus
Although there was so much to choose from (you might say, almost too much to choose from), the majority of our party opted for one of the four basic ‘Sizzling Skillets' which we found to be fresh-tasting, attractively-plated and great value for money. The chicken fajitas (£6.99) were delicious; the chicken itself appropriately-seasoned and served amongst a medley of onion and pepper upon a sizzling skillet, (what else?!) Apart from the fact that the onion seemed to dominate the ensemble, the remaining aspects of the dish were suitably portioned – namely, guacamole, grated cheddar, jalapeños, chunky salsa and sour cream – which you could pack into amply-sized tortillas however you fancied! The tortillas themselves would have benefited from a little heat prior to serving but all in all, this was a satisfying dish which I’d definitely order again. The chicken and black bean skillet (£7.49) and rump steak fajitas (£7.99) were also well-received and the BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich (£6.95) demolished before I’d even had chance to ask its recipient any questions in regards to its execution! If actions really do speak louder than words however, I'd suggest that this was also a win! 
Chicken Fajita Skillet: Steamy!
Chicken and Black Bean Skillet

At the bar were all the usual suspects, though a thoughtfully composed wine list led me to an Oyster Bay Chardonnay which particularly appealed due to my new-found affinity with New Zealand plonk. And, at £3.99 for a medium glass (175ml), I felt compelled to re-run the fun in terms of my initial order; the second glass complementing dessert with its delicate lemon-meringue flavoured undertones and smooth, creamy finish. My Corona-drinking pal took advantage of the two-for-£5 bottled beverage deal and it was noted that real ale fans can choose from several on-tap varieties; Butcombe Gold the drink of choice on this occasion for the beer-lover in our midst.

There was no attempt whatsoever to resist the the dessert menu; each of us opting for a 'Spectacular Sundae', (£3.69). Unfortunately, I seemingly drew the short straw given that the cookies and cream creation proved rather ice cream heavy; the cookies somewhat solid rather than soft and chewy as a result of their frozen milieu. The profiterole sundae looked rather more appetising, though not quite as 'spectacular' as the brownie and popcorn sundae which stole the show with its warm, chocolaty chunks of brownie which effectively punctuated the ice cream content with its rich, gooey appeal. Hey, how about a sweet skillet including the likes of toasted marshmallow and grilled banana served alongside a hot chocolate dipping pot?...No? Just a thought! 
In conclusion, my friends and I thoroughly enjoyed our Sizzling pub experience; the Blue Bowl is comfortable and relaxed; the service excellent and the food entirely exceeded our expectations; both in terms of its delivery and content. The menu is a bit of a mine field in that the plethora of dishes -starters, sharers, sides, 'ultimate' eats, extras, favourites, light-bites, deals and swaps - can be a tad overwhelming. It does also beg the question of how the kitchen copes with having to prep and execute so many varying plates. That said, there were no complaints in relation to the culinary aspect of the evening on our part which, for the price, was altogether applaudable. The history of this pub may well read of scandal and unrest but, if that's the kind of establishment you're after, its best to look elsewhere! Instead, this is an ample choice for din dins and drinky poos* that won't break the bank – recommended. 
Just so you know...
And now for the second (collective) opinion...

My dining companions agreed upon a rating of 7/10 for Sizzling Pubs' Spring menu and summed up the fare as 'generously plated sizzle!'


*Private Joke!

Saturday, 26 April 2014

TGI Friday's - Cabot Circus, Bristol

Founded in New York City back in the 1960's and with well over 900 outlets worldwide, you may be surprised to learn that I'd actually never set foot in a TGI Friday's*. For, what's coined as 'casual dining' is, in my view, really rather pricey; the multitude of alternative chain restaurants gracing our fair city offering what I’d previously considered better value-for money for fare of a comparable quality. Consequently, the newest branch of TGIFs in Bristol's Cabot Circus (which opened its doors in the Summer of 2013) had, for me at least, remained untouched. That is, until I received an offer I simply couldn't refuse.... 

The Invitation:
Do you lie in bed craving a relationship you can really sink your teeth into? 

Are you looking for romance of the incredibly meaty variety?

TGI Friday’s invites you and a friend to a saucy evening of hot love, BURGER BLIND DATE.

We’ve arranged a line-up of our sexiest new hand-crafted burgers who are all dying to meet you – but choosing your lover for the night won’t be as simple as love at first sight. Forget Cilla Black, you’ll be choosing the burger who gets you hot under the collar by reading about their naughtiest personality traits, seeing who tickles your pickle and taking the plunge. In Burger Blind Date every one of our sizzling suitors is a boom fitty, so what have you got to lose?

If you’re game, come down to TGI Fridays Cabot Circus on Thursday 24th April at 6:00pm, pluck up some Dutch courage with a cocktail or two on us and ‘meat' the love of your life. Just RSVP to this email with the name of your +1 to let us know that you’re coming.

We’ll see you soon for some cheeky back-room action!

Lots of lovin’,
TGI Friday’s 

In the subject line was a disclaimer reading: 'Fun warning: This may be the best email you'll receive all weekend'...and it was...it really was! Accordingly, here is my account of the evening that followed....
The Cocktails: 
First stop...the bar and although sticky menus brim with a vast assortment of concoctions, our server encouraged my dining companion and I to allow him to recommend a cocktail (from a bank of over 500) based on our preferred base spirit. My affinity with gin landed me the Maverick Aviator (£6.99); a delicate fusion of Bombay Sapphire, violet and maraschino liqueurs and the zing of fresh lemon which had been finished with a light (alcoholic) foam; genius! For my friend, the Hinky Dink (£6.99) which muddled Bacardi eight-year-old rum with generous measures of Captain Morgan and Grand Marnier. The splash of lime juice and slurp of almond syrup completing the brew, appropriately balancing the boozy kick with a sweet-noted warmth.

Later, we found ourselves with a classic French Martini and a fruity twist on a frozen margarita which established my new mantra that a cocktail simply isn’t worth the graft unless you have to support its weight with both hands! That said, should cocktails not be your bag (come on, really?!) you should know that there are a multitude of alternative beverage routes to sip; beers, bubbles, wines, mocktails, milkshakes…the list is endless. 
Burger Blind Date: 
With the traits of each contestant in-hand, it was time to select our partner in gastronomical gluttony and, usually priced between £9.99 and £13.49, its fair to say that high expectations were steering us towards the most outlandish ‘traits’ in the mix. I opted for lucky contestant number two (see description below) which manifested itself as Friday’s double glazed Jack Daniel’s burger which was sweet and smoky, slathered with Monterey Jack cheese and topped with Jack Daniel’s candied bacon and Friday’s mayo. With a generous side order of sweet potato fries, this was a serious plate of food; attractively plated yet piled high; each element absolutely spot-on in terms of its execution. My dining companion chose contestant number eight, the mystery meal which constituted a toasted brioche bun which had been layered with a mix-up of beef steak, peppers, jalapeños, fried onion and that legendary Jack Daniel’s drizzle. He accompanied his burger with the chilli cheese fries which, for me at least, depicted a meal in itself! All in all, I’d suggest that the dishes we’d received suitably demonstrated the intended theme; namely the wow-factor of an American grill, (cue gutsy portions and unmistakable carnivorous appeal). This theme has also been channelled into the service which was enthusiastic and, at times, a little over-attentive. If you're a person who prefers limited interaction with those that wait your table during dinner, perhaps this establishment isn't for you. If I'm honest, I was kinda relieved that I didn't have to witness the 'carnival' that erupts in the event of a birthday! 

Contestant Number Two!
Contestant Number Eight

Don't panic, the filthy innuendo above will be gone by the time you visit...you can still bring your Grandparents!

Something Sweet: 
How we managed to tackle a pudding after the nom-fest that had taken hold thus far was quite an accomplishment and yet, we felt compelled to share the Popcorn Brownie Sundae which was choc-full of, yep you guessed it, warm brownie chunks and crunchy, toffee-glazed popcorn. Swirled with hot fudge sauce, creamy vanilla ice cream and topped with ‘proper’ whipped cream – nothing synthetic here, folks – this really was an indulgent end to an extravagant evening of what can only be described as food porn! 
In Conclusion:
And there you have it, the unashamed yet seedy reasons for my visit; a visit which confirmed a couple of my preconceptions and yet, allowed for an overhaul of my TGIF virginity and in doing so, led me to experience first-rate service, a passion for mixology that, in my view, simply cannot be rivalled by any other chain restaurant and seriously satisfying fare. Yes, it is a little cheesy and it may well set you back rather more pennies than its neighbouring eateries but for the quality that ensued, it really is worth the hit...I'd sum up TGI Friday's as a chain with a brain given that it can suitably cater for anyone. I mean, despite the vast selection of dishes/cocktails on the menu (which doesn't often denote a positive outcome in the quality versus quantity stakes), knowledgeable servers can help you make an informed decision based on your basic wants, preferred ingredients and of course, any dietary requirements. And so, with framed photographs of our #burgerface action shots in hand, my dining companion and I left with full tummies and a lasting impression of an establishment that really aims to please…as blind dates go (and I’ve been on a few), this has to be the only one which really made me swoon!
Ready for the launch...!
Feel the gurn...!


Sunday, 13 April 2014

No. 4 Clifton Village…Revisited

Date and Time: Thursday 10 April 2014, 19:00
Name of Establishment: No. 4 Clifton Village*
Location: Rodney Place, Clifton
Reason for Visit: A refurb' which prompted a return-visit.
A chilly reception?
Set within the timeless composure of an authentic Georgian mansion, No. 4 Clifton Village restaurant and bar is part of an independently owned and operated venue which includes the Rodney Hotel. Having initially visited this award-winning venue back in August 2012 and writing what can only be described as a glowing report, I was interested to learn of the restaurant’s ‘total refurbishment’; accepting an invitation to re-run the fun in order to experience their shiny, new space. The thing is, although the décor was decidedly improved; having retained its original elegance yet brightening the overall ambiance with funky wallpaper and a focal light fitting, this had no bearing on the all-important culinary aspect; the fare proving a comparable standard to that of my previous visit and the menu almost identical in terms of its content. Subsequently, you can consider both the positive and the negative implications of this finding whereby all my original plus-points apply (locally-sourced ingredients; check, quality not quantity in terms of the menu’s content; check, expertly-executed dishes which were both well-presented and delicious; check and check) and yet on the other hand, noting the lack of imagination applied to refreshing the menu from season to season. I mean – I distinctly remember ordering the glazed Chantenay carrots alongside the breast of chicken prior to this visit which, available again a good 20 months later, seemed to indicate that the next transformation of this venue should perhaps include the menu!
That light-bulb moment...
Back to the evening at hand and although the bar area was familiarly well-stocked, it was not quite as inviting as the scatter cushions and sporadically-arranged seating had proven beforehand. Instead, an angular lay-out and cold colour-scheme had created an almost clinical essence which was, without doubt, a far cry from what had existed previously and, I felt, not particularly in keeping with the vibrant hues at-large in the dining room. The service however, had vastly improved whereby a friendly, happy-to-help attitude remained intact throughout the course of the evening.
In the restaurant, I decided upon the fillet of cod (£13.50) which, beautifully plated, was fresh and succulent. The lemon and thyme crumble was an inventive topping; bitter-sweet on the palate and therefore suitably contrasting the fish both in terms of texture and taste. That said, there were a couple of surprise elements to the dish given that the garden peas billed to accompany the main event were nowhere to be seen and in their place, a sporadic dollop of what tasted a little like parsnip purée – an addition which, to be fair, didn’t really enhance what was otherwise an appetising and visually appealing plate of food. The chocolate torte (£5.95) was also well-received, though again, different in the flesh than detailed on the menu. This had been drizzled with a tart orange syrup (as promised) yet in the place of the Chantilly cream sat a mixed berry compote which really didn’t compliment the ensemble at all and even once the dish had been flourished with a quenelle of cream (at my request), the berries remained untouched which seemed rather a shame.
Berry delicious
Overall, the most valuable revision, in my view at least, was the introduction of the Monday-Thursday money-savers. The ‘special occasion’ remit which I had previously applied to this establishment challenged somewhat by the likes of ‘2 for £10 Tuesday’; which denotes two courses for a tenner and ‘Thirsty Thursday’; whereby every main course purchased can be washed down with a complimentary glass of Prosecco – great news for the penny-pinchers amongst us, present company included! All in all, those at the helm of this refresh have succeeded in making this a brighter, more affordable venue for everyday dining and yet, to determine repeat-custom, I’d suggest considerably varying the dishes available on a regular basis...Surely adhering to a Modern European theme has so much more to give?!
Affordable eating

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Clifton FoodFest and the Primrose Café

Receiving an invitation to the media preview week which would precede the Clifton FoodFest* simply has to be my top foodie 'win' of the year thus far. I mean, with no less than fifteen restaurants, cafés and delis taking part from within the upmarket confines of Clifton Village, this food-lover's festival would offer the public an opportunity to eat out for just £10 – bargain! As the brain child of the Business Improvement District (BID) for Clifton Village (formed in 2012 to support organisations within the region) and the first festival of its kind in the city, I saw it as an affordable means to explore the area's eateries. Plus, a reason to experience an establishment that I'd been meaning to visit for dinner (or specifically, for something a little more substantial than cake)...Cue the Primrose Café*, a picturesque and well-attended café-come-bistro that, given its location (on the cusp of the historic Clifton Arcade), allows for some pretty indulgent people-watching and more importantly, delivers what I'm told is first-rate fare. Let me be the judge of that....
Date and time: Wednesday 2nd April 2014, 7:30pm
Name of Establishment: Primrose Café
Location: 1 Clifton Arcade, Boyces Avenue, Bristol
Reason for visit: The Clifton FoodFest and two-course-for-£10 offer
Stepping into the Primrose Café at dusk denotes a relatively different experience to a daytime sitting whereby coffee, cake and the hubbub of the passing crowd altogether encapsulates what has become an institution amidst Clifton's successful café culture. I'm not sure what I was expecting if I'm honest but fancy table dressings coupled with bistro-style formalities were really rather removed from what I'd grown accustomed to following previous visits. This was not to its detriment I'll hasten to add as sure enough, the familiar cosiness of this laid-back space had remained intact whereby the passive duet of chatter and jazz as well as the warm glow from the abundant candlelight created the perfect ambiance for an upmarket dinner – it could have almost been romantic, if my dining companion hadn't been my mum!

We dined from the 'Early Bird' menu which we understood would also serve those attending as part of the FoodFest. The menu offered three options for each course at a price of £10 for two or £12.50 for three. Mum and I opted for two and were glad that we did in light of the complimentary appetisers which accompanied the arrival of our drinks (small glasses of the house white - a French Sauvingnon - which you could opt to add to your meal for a mere £2.50 each). Here, espresso cups of mushroom and truffle soup were drizzled with crème fraiche and accompanied with homemade sour dough – a little too sizeable to be considered appetisers in my view but a real treat nevertheless. Main courses were served promptly afterwards; the asparagus and wild garlic risotto for me and the mackerel fillet for mum; a dish which she enthused, was expertly executed - the fish itself proving succulent and tasty with the odd bone discovery excused in favour of its fresh appeal. She particularly enjoyed the aubergine and spring onion medley which, basking in the oil from the meat above, had been well seasoned with coriander, ginger and the kick of fresh chilli. The risotto was well portioned and thoughtfully plated; by which I refer to my life-long inability to knock-up an attractive rice dish! Instead, the asparagus contributed a little colour to the plate's overall aesthetic and punctuated the decadently creamy rice with an adequate crunch. I felt that the garlic content could have been elevated somewhat and yet, this is simply due to personal taste, (no vampires on me folks!)

It's fair to say that we were suitably impressed so far – not only with the gastronomical element of the evening but also with the efficient yet friendly disposition of the serving staff who altogether enhanced the relaxed atmosphere of the space. Despite being rather full up, mum and I powered through to the dessert course, rather taken with the lengthy menu of cheeses from which to choose the basis of your cheese board. Mum selected an Irish Ardrahan which, sourced from the neighbouring Arch House Deli, was honey-coloured to the eye and flavoursome to taste – its fragrant bite perfectly contrasting the sweet chutney that neatly crowned the fruit and cracker assortment. I opted for a diverse ensemble of sticky-sweet maple and pecan ice cream and tart raspberry sorbet, both of which had been made on the premises and delivered their flavours in bursts upon the palate. 

In conclusion, I'd certainly recommend the Primrose Café as a dinner-time domain (or, in fact, for any occasion) and without the incentive to visit courtesy of the Clifton FoodFest, I may well have remained amongst those who consider this fantastic spot an ample choice for lunch without ever learning of its after-hours alter ego! I think badging an establishment as a café can sometimes skew one's perception of its intentions...not to mention its opening hours! That said, perhaps with incentives like the Clifton FoodFest, the public will further experience the Primrose Café’s culinary expertise which is undoubtedly of restaurant quality; professionally delivered yet affordable. Couple that with the great service and pleasant surroundings which pull in scores of Cliftonites each and every day and you'll realise that there's a lot more to this Bristol go-to than meets the eye! What's more, the Clifton FoodFest doesn't end until Sunday 13th April so you still have a whole week in which to take advantage of the numerous money-saving meal options available in and around the village. What are you waiting for? Try somewhere new today! 

And now for the second option....
Mum gave the Primrose Café a rating of 10/10 and in three words, described her experience as 'impossible to fault'. Praise indeed.
For more  information about the Clifton FoodFest, including a full listing of the participating eateries and the deals that they're offering, click the link above.

Monday, 31 March 2014

An introduction to New Zealand wine...not a canapé, cupcake or cocktail in sight!

As you may have gathered from my lengthy absence from the social media scene, I've been otherwise AWOL - sunning myself on the other side of the world no less; swapping my beloved Bristol for a three-month 'tiki tour' of New Zealand. I felt compelled to put stylus to touchscreen in some capacity and yet, found myself deliberating over an appropriate angle to take. I mean, given the 12 week time-frame, the best part of thirty locations over two islands and the plethora of cafés, restaurants and bars visited therein, I couldn't possibly offer a review short of a novel in order to document the experiences which have constituted an altogether amazing trip. Instead, I thought I'd draw upon the pastime which became a pilgrimage of sorts and ultimately, an education in a subject which I was more than willing to learn... For, although I was well aware of what I enjoy when it comes to wine, it wasn't until a thorough exploration of New Zealand's vineyards that I really began to understand the reasons underpinning my preferences and furthermore, appreciate the blood, sweat and tears afforded to each and every bottle.
Trinity Hill, Hawkes Bay
As per the unfounded knowledge of Wikipedia, there are ten main wine-growing regions of New Zealand. Despite this, I'm going to focus on the three that featured most heavily in my adventures; incidentally, areas influential enough to increase the likelihood that you'll be able to sample some of the wines I'll mention, here in the UK.
Wither Hills, Marlborough
Marlborough (South Island): 
As 62% of the total vineyard area in the country, Marlborough is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc (affectionately referred to as simply, 'Sav' by the locals) which is abundantly produced here due to perfect conditions; hot, sunny days and cool nights which extend the grape growing period. It is vibrant and grassy by nature, a classic example being the 2013 vintage from Wither Hills which, we were informed, recently won gold at the Marlborough Wine Show. Although 'Sav' is undoubtedly the king varietal, other grapes including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay also have a place here; Framingham Estate especially wowing The Boy and I with its array of sophisticated wines which, as the first winery we visited, set the bar rather high in light of the sipping and swishing that ensued. Here too, four diverse styles of Reisling from thirty-year-old vines, produced solely in the Wairau Valley and embodying the vineyard's Germanic fashion; the F-Series old vine 2012 Reisling proving to be my particular favourite which, delivered in an old world style, undoubtedly hit the mark in terms of its texture and complexity. It was here too that we discovered how many doctors and scientists steer their careers towards winemaking; the brains behind Forrest wines for example (doctors, John and Brigid Forrest) claiming that 'grape growing...is an exacting science' - the punchy aromatic whites and powerfully scented reds that we enjoyed at their site seeming to support this. Moving on and if it's bubbles you're after, you can't go far wrong with No1 Family Estate; their Methode Traditionelle sparkling wines simply bursting on the palate with refreshing acidity and subtle fruit notes. The No1 Rosé especially which, as the first of its kind for winemaker Daniel Le Brun and made with 100% Pinot Noir, is salmon-pink to the eye and packed with teeny tiny bubbles to taste; surely making it the grown-up alternative to champers, no?!
Central Otago (South Island):
As a lesser known but by no means lesser quality wine growing area, The Boy and I found ourselves in some rather impressive Pinot Noir growing territory on our way through the mountains towards Queenstown. Responsible for just over 70% of the plantings, Pinot Noir is plentiful and delicious; rich and oh-so smooth on the palate with a lasting fruitiness which lived-on long after each mouthful. Tannins to rival that of its continental counterparts and a vibrancy owing to the unique grape-growing conditions which are the most southerly in the world as well as the highest in New Zealand (at 200-400 metres above sea level). Mt. Difficulty's 'Roaring Meg' Pinot Noir was a wonderful example of a 'drink-young' style, brimming with sweet cherry and plum flavours, yet balanced with a little oak. Also notable is the soil here which is often glacial, making for strong competitors in terms of the Reisling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer produced here; the latter being a particular favourite of mine with its Turkish Delight essence and spicy, aromatic notes (a perfect accompaniment for Asian fare or even, I'm told, marinated pork). Central Otago is in the process of applying for a geographic indication for wine growing in the area - a formality to well and truly put it on the map and rightly so, as wineries like Peregrine with its outstanding Saddleback 2011 Pinot Gris and Chapel Estate's strawberries and cream scented rosé are really worth being aware of.
Chapel Estate, Cromwell
Hawkes Bay (North Island): 
As New Zealand's oldest wine producing area and the second largest after Marlborough, it came as no surprise that the wineries visited here were nothing less than incredible. Mission Estate was our first stop, constituting a little slice of history given that it was established back in 1851 and thus, as the oldest winery in the country, often referred to as the birthplace of New Zealand wine. Although Bordeaux blend reds are big in this region, with Syrah at top of the bill, I found the Sauvignon Blancs particularly appealing; less grassy than those sampled in Marlborough and instead, crisp, fruity and refreshing. The Gimblett Gravels play a big part in this; the stony soils from former river beds giving wineries like Unison and Trinity Hill a real edge when it comes to fresh-tasting whites which are delicately balanced and above all, dangerously drinkable! Rod McDonald's 2012 'Quarter Acre' sampled at the friendly Te Awanga Estate was a revelation, so much so that we went back for a second taste...and then a third, hic! There too, a late harvest Semillon; so beautifully coupled with blue cheese that it would have been criminal not to indulge in just that! Viognier is another popular grape here; the 2013 offering from the Black Barn vineyards standing-out amidst those of its neighbours. This winery also deepened my love-hate relationship with Chardonnay, the 2012 reserve my preference over the 2012 100% barrel fermented variety due to its subtle vanilla notes and smooth disposition. We learnt that Chardonnay is Black Barn's most awarded wine so my personal aversion to heavily oaked whites is clearly in the minority. Overall, my favourite visit in this region was to Clearview Estate whereby the winemaker himself supervised as devotees showcased his stunning range of wines, the best of which was the 'sea red'; a rich dessert wine with just enough residual sugar to adequately pair it with dark chocolate but minus the cloying sweetness of some of the other stickies we'd tasted; just divine!
Rod McDonald's 2012 'Quarter Acre'
Clearview Estate's 'Sea Red'

Lastly, I feel I should also mention Emporium*, an art deco style restaurant/bar in central Napier that allowed us to sample our new found favourites in larger quantities...just to make sure!
The oldest winery in NZ
Despite missing out on the boutique style wines of Martinborough and the Gewurztraminer-lover's dream to be found in Gisbourne, it's fair to say that it was a journey of the senses nevertheless; gifting me with experiences that will affect the way I'll drink and purchase wine in the future. Wine growing estates are certainly picturesque and this is no doubt testament to the hard work that goes into their maintenance...Brancott Estate in Renwick (Marlborough), Chapel Estate in Cromwell (Central Otago) and award-winning Craggy Range Estate in Havelock North (Hawkes Bay) were visually delicious, even before sampling the liquid gold that lay within. Not to mention the strategy behind their arrangement, the Boy and I learning how, in certain plots, vines were planted outside of the typical East to West formation, so that one side of the vine takes longer to ripen, producing two variations of the same grape. Genius!
Mission Estate
Overall and in addition to sharing the teachings of my travels, I hope that my brief insight to New Zealand wines will inspire you, the reader, to sample those available to us in the UK - for I can certainly vouch for the fact that the wine makers themselves will be chuffed that you've chosen their craftsmanship from that of their peers amidst the international market that we're so lucky to be privy to. Cheers!

For further information regarding New Zealand wine, visit:
www.winesofnz.com or www.nzwine.com 

If you are interested in purchasing any of the aforementioned wines from the UK, you could try; ' Hard-to-Find Wines' at www.htfwines.co.uk
Ngatarawa Winery, picnic perfection