10 October 2013

Crème de la crème
Bell's Diner & Bar Rooms

Bell's Diner, Bristol
Thirteen years ago, my brother, sister and I cooked a meal for my parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. Looking back, there are large parts of that evening that escape my memory. I do remember a hugely disappointing main course of home-made meatballs, and I remember painstakingly crafting invitations (for a meal in their own house - genius).  However, there is one memory which has burnt brightly for all this time. And that is of the crème brûlée.

My mum is not a big pudding fan. Unlike me, she can quite happily feel that her meal is complete without a dessert (she is partial to a peanut M & M however). There are few exceptions to this rule but crème brûlée is the most notable. Now, I would forgive you for thinking that this means my mum would be likely to order a crème brûlée whenever it’s on a menu. The truth is far from that. All those years ago on her anniversary, we treated my mum to a crème brûlée made by my brother’s friend – otherwise known in my mother’s eyes, as the chef who made the perfect crème brûlée. After that, there have been years of failed attempts – those with sugar that didn’t produce a true crack, those with custard that was too thick, custard that was too thin and, the very worst offenders – those with fruit in the bottom. None have come close.

Bell's Diner, Bristol
Why am I telling you this?  It is because last weekend, that title was given to another. My mum declared that the crème brûlée at Bell’s Diner and Bar Rooms in Bristol was the best she’d ever had. And the world stopped. Just for a moment.

Bell's Diner, Bristol
Having heard nothing but rave reviews, I have wanted to go to Bell’s Diner for some time now. And a family visit to celebrate my dad’s birthday seemed an excellent opportunity to put it to the test. Tucked away in Montpelier, the restaurant’s neighbours are the great Thali Café and Radford Mill farm shop – all contributing to a little gastro oasis in what is a predominantly a residential area. Bell’s Diner is a beautiful curved building which inside has been decorated with lots of antique wooden furniture full of old vinyl records and glassware.  I’d like to say that the style is ‘shabby chic’ but that would make me sound like an idiot, and make Bell’s sound pretentious – which it most certainly is not.
Bell's Diner, Bristol

It’s open for brunch, lunch and dinner, with a focus on small sharing plates that let you choose how much you want to eat. Those of you who have read my review of Poco in Stokes Croft may know that I am a big fan of this style of eating, but for eight people? I’ll admit I was a little concerned.

We were booked in for nine, and arrived to a restaurant still full of noisy chatter and lots of happy eaters. You can’t get a better sign than that. Taking our leave from the staff we ordered some salami and pickles whilst we perused the menu and worked out our tactics. Should we share in couples? Or order in groups of four? We did neither as it turned out, as I was given the slightly nerve-wracking honour of ordering for the whole table. And so I did. I ordered almost everything on the menu.

Bell's Diner, BristolBell's Diner, Bristol
The great thing about Bell’s Diner is that the service is impeccable, and they have the speed just right. Having decided to share all the dishes I’d chosen, when we found one we liked we just ordered it again – it was with us in minutes. Some of the dishes are a little harder to share in a large group because they come portioned into three, or four. However, the staff knew which ones might be difficult and could advise me on how many to order. Most of the dishes are served as small plates, though some are offered as large and are closer to a more traditional main course. However, I’d recommend that if you plan to go in a big group, you should go with like-minded people in terms of sharing. Don’t take anyone who’s going to get irate about splitting everything equally. This is definitely not the place for them.

Bell's Diner, BristolBell's Diner, Bristol
It is however, the place for me. Particular highlights included the slow cooked octopus with preserved lemon and capers – although a couple of our group went a bit shaky because of the tentacles. Oh well, more for me. The scallops with beetroot, and the charcoal grilled chicken oysters were also a big hit. Particularly because I’ve been obsessed with chicken oysters ever since I saw the film ‘Amelie’. Unsurprisingly, we ordered more of the chorizo and morcilla because, let’s face it, two pork products are always better than one. However, the one shock re-order was a plate of cauliflower cooked in yogurt with pine nuts. Who the hell knew cauliflower could taste like that?

Bell's Diner, Bristol
There were similar great touches with the spiced lentils and burnt peppers with anchovies – a dish so celebrated that it had my dad asking for a further round of bread, just to mop it up. We finished on a hearty bowl of veal cheeks which, split between eight was just enough. I fear a whole one may have defeated me. On reflection, I’m struggling to find anything about the plates that wasn’t stellar. I guess that it isn’t cheap, in terms of the quantity you get for your money. Quality though is another matter.

A small pause before dessert and coffee, giving us the opportunity to chat about our favourites and compare how much mess we’d each made (it’s bound to happen when eight people share a plate of prawns, ok?). Having been given the role of ordering for the whole party for the main course, I declared that puddings were a different story – every man for himself. That’s way too much responsibility for me. Some of us chose a dessert (the chocolate tart with spiced figs I ordered living up to the high standard of the rest of the meal), others went for home-made fudge or truffles. A good range of options depending on how much cauliflower you’d stuffed down your neck.

And then came the brûlée...the table was silent as the spoon went in, the audible crack serving to alleviate some of the tension. Nothing was said as my mum contemplated the first mouthful.

“Was it as good as...?” my brother tentatively asked.

“Even better” she responded. This was one plate that was definitely not getting shared.

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