The Clifton, 16 Regent St, Clifton, Bristol BS8 4HG
The Clifton: Bristol's Mount Olympus Finally Answers a Prayer
Look, it’s not my fault I dismiss the idea of restaurants in Clifton out of hand like Sharpe's superiors receiving word of a French counterattack. It’s a case of chronic mistiming. When Pudsey’s Restaurant was around, I wasn’t fully financially solvent because I was two. When Keith Floyd had his bistro, I wasn’t even born. During the two-year-long episode of Skins that was my sixth form, Bristol’s Mount Olympus catered for other appetites via sprawling house parties humid with pheromones and thick with smoke, in ostentatious second homes where chandeliers hung unironically.
But I do often buckle under the weight of my own cringe when recalling all the times I never went to the legendary Wallfish Bistro. Between then and now, it's Bar 44 that's sodden the gussets and girdles of the Old Money, having chosen it as their Palliative Care Unit. Speaking of which, I’ve brought The Old Man along for this latest punt on the postcode.
"...the menu is a litany of bangers, so ordering becomes a process of negation"
The Clifton initially arouses suspicion because it resembles a pub in which I toiled for too long, borrowing heavily from the playbook of so many pub refurbs. Muted earth tones against creams, Wainscoting, sanded floors and exposed brickwork — that homogenised notion of a boozer, derived from nebulous imaginings of those who spend zero time in pubs.
Pastrami-spiced jailer's keys
Regardless, the menu is a litany of bangers, so ordering becomes a process of negation. First and above all: bread. A somehow unpretentious plank dominoed with sourdough and soda bread slides between our glasses, along with a Lego-yellow chunk of butter. The former all squidge and tang, the latter a close crumb with that sweetness as if Scoopaway chucked it all in and did cake instead. A restaurant’s bread will always be the canary down its mine and so far, this one is singing sweetly.
Splayed like jailers’ keys is a trio of supple ox heart skewers, emitting an ethereal pastrami-esque spice. I’m ashamed for not stowing a few pieces to whack on some bread, because I do pride myself on two things: my prejudice and intra-meal sarnies. A Spirograph of Westcombe finocchiona salami slinks down beside us — the warmed plate doing half the work in rendering the dappled fat; each slice practically vanishing on the tongue like keto Paper Mints.
Westcombe finocchiona salami...like keto Paper Mints
A diehard working-class man from Biker Grove via Patchway, The Old Man’s notions of value were crushed in 2011 after learning that 99p Flakes were then, a poultry £2.50. I've since shielded him from the current prices because he's the last parent I've got. But the devilled whitebait claws it all back; fat, thumb-sized bastards mock the pallid slivers he’s used to, sporting a deep-fried chrysalis that goads you into dragging them through a sympathetic dollop of lemon and garlic mayo. He’s chucking them back like a gull, eyes squeezed closed as if not to let any of the recaptured bliss back into the wild.
Chicory and fennel salad slapped with a Factor 50 Dijon dressing
"The Old Man’s notions of value were crushed in 2011 after learning that 99p Flakes were then, a poultry £2.50"
Studded with pistachio is a wild rabbit, smoked bacon & prune terrine, flaunting its mosaic layers with total clarity. Accompanied by a bobbled shard of crackling, slices of cornichons and a splodge of chutney that would get any Nan’s approval, another intra-meal sarnie naturally occurs. A chicory and fennel salad follows, slapped with a Factor 50 Dijon dressing enshrouding crispy pig’s cheek, punctuated with green peppercorns. Do I want to shove it all in a butty? You bet your rolling eyes I do, so guess what happened.
Rare and rosy hues hemmed in Maillard
A filigreed cast iron trivet thuds onto the table. We sit up straight. I can see that classic sunset orange Le Cruset pot on the pass. The short rib we've ordered cometh, but only once we’ve dealt with this specimen of Torgelly Farm lamb; rare and rosy hues hemmed in Maillard, wearing nothing but a pan sauce that reminds me why I can’t cook.
The ubiquitous pressed and fried confit potatoes that, at this rate, will make The Quality Chop House epitaph are another revelation for The Old Man. Watching a Geordie suddenly reevaluate all they’ve come to know about potatoes is worth its weight in dripping and managed economic decline.
"...the very essence of good pub food — how you might imagine a more robust culinary home life if you had the chops and could be bothered with the subsequent washing up."
Potatoes is worth their weight in dripping and managed economic decline
Like a gavel to a sound block, down clunks the Le Cruset on the trivet. Half a King James’ bible worth of short rib is sculling in a sauce the colour of dulce de leche, sweet with liberal glugs of brandy and shallots completely coaxed of their sugars, bobbing with cavolo nero. It’s the very essence of good pub food — how you might imagine a more robust culinary home life if you had the chops and could be bothered with the subsequent washing up. We lob in a bowl of bread ends to soak up the remaining inch of sauce, basting regularly until at critical mass and the crusts start to give. Poor man’s dumplings in nature, excruciatingly middle class in execution.
The closest an Athiest will get to a religious experience
A dessert boasting a setlist of coffee, chocolate mousse, hazelnuts and milk sorbet promises to not only play the hits but also have you home before 8pm. At least in name. The sorbet is grainy but thankfully a balm to the mousse harbouring a terror cell of table salt — Occam’s Razor assures me that this has to be a freak blunder. That, or Hermes is doing overtime.
A terror cell of table salt
Speaking of Trojan Horses, an expertly formed quince soufflé follows in all its aerated coyness and ‘but it’s wafer-thin’ psychological appeal. The flavour is dishearteningly faint, especially in contrast to the excellent Earl Grey ice cream alongside; the floral, bittersweet qualities captured and lying dormant in the cold, unfurling into bloom the moment they find warmth.
"The Clifton is a blessing because it’s a true gastropub and you can tell because the claim is absent, rather than laboured."
Actual footage of a real Trojan Horse
Despite the Pub Nouveau™ looks, with its Tribute on draft and Guinness for the kids, The Clifton is a blessing because it’s a true gastropub and you can tell because the claim is absent, rather than laboured. Instead, assuredness in conjuring great food is quietly demonstrated with a dining room laid in concert with a pass backlit by tallow-fuelled flames. And an induction hob that reassuringly acknowledges the importance of à la minute.
The Clifton has applied both paddles to the chest of Mount Olympus and jolted it back into relevance, followed by steady, thoughtful compressions of a faff-aversed menu. You can’t taste the spreadsheets or contempt for the common man which in many ways, are the core tenets of a pub — even one with an eclectic wine list. The Clifton has given Bristol glimpses of other legends like St. John and Quality Chop House, which must be nice for the many Cliftonites who fled the capital to graciously expedite Bristol's housing crisis and ruin it altogether.
And on that note, let us light a joss stick and be grateful that The Clifton isn’t just the latest head to spawn from the BianchiCorp Hyrda. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 restaurants. Go directly to jail.