The first restaurant I ever reviewed was Le Caprice. It was as faultless as a meal gets. Not only do I remember every mouthful – the gruffness of the steak tartare, the insidious heat of the chilli squid – but the smells, the sounds, the table, the atmosphere, the diners, and of course, the bill.
A restaurant like Le Caprice, like any defining bit of culture, doesn’t come along every week, every month, or even every year. With democratisation comes blandness, a dilution, and restaurants are no exception. The one thing that every dining room should want to be is unforgettable; as unforgettable as Le Caprice, and once upon a time, as unforgettable as its sister restaurant, the Ivy.
There was a point where, unless you were a regular, or famous, or both, you couldn’t just get a table at the Ivy. Not because it had the most inventive menu, or the most talented chef, or the most tasteful décor, but because it had that indefinable, intangible something: a crossroads of stuff that mediocre restaurants pour thousands of pounds into acquiring through research and PR and gimmicks and trends.
The Ivy unquestionably had it – the secret ingredient, that je ne sais quoi – but again, democratisation changes everything, and what made the Ivy so charming in the first place was hijacked by people who weren’t coming for the food, the ambience, or the privacy, but to consume conspicuously next to someone they’d seen on the telly. The only trouble is, apart from a gaggle of z-listers and hacks, everyone had buggered off to the members-only Ivy Club next door. Or Nobu.
But of course, the Ivy continues to thrive, and it was only a matter of time before offshoot Ivy Cafes and Brasseries started popping up like Richard Caring’s morning glories all over London – and now Bristol.
I visited on two consecutive days during launch week, which makes it the first review I’ve done based on tandem sittings. The Ivy is certainly Bristol’s most elegant dining room; the same Art Deco, bourgeois wet-dream we’ve come to love, faithfully flat-packed from the West End. It’s a welcome change to a city that generally prefers to balance gastronomy with ecology, eating with egalitarianism, and where people don’t go to restaurants just to be seen. The traits that make this room emphatically like London – grandiloquence and vanity – are the same things that make it nothing like Bristol. But that’s why, on looks at least, the Ivy is a refreshing addition to the city’s pulsating restaurant scene.
We’re seated, we order, the waitress materialises and dematerialises without ceremony, she says the right things in the right order, she brings the right things in the right order, and is perfectly charming and affable. You couldn’t ask for more in service. The menu’s as expected: mostly safe and pleasing enough, but far too overcrowded for a kitchen that should have more confidence in its food.
We shared a bunch of starters, simply because the neighbourly concept of sharing plates has taken over our culinary sensibilities. Break bread, pass it on.
Crunchy prawns with wasabi mayo was everything you’d want it to be: pert and sweet shellfish encased in a crisp panko crumb. Condiments du jour can be exhaustingly naff, but I’m glad wasabi mayo is now a thing, especially when it’s this good. Arancini were starchy and al dente, as they should be, with the woody hue of truffle balanced well with salty pecorino. Zucchini fritti are an uncomplicated pleasure, and these were just as good as any self-respecting Italian’s.
The main courses may as well have been from another kitchen, indistinguishable from other chain brasseries such as Browns or Blanc’s. Best was the shepherd’s pie, which has been imported from Mother Ivy’s menu. The lamb shoulder was practically melting with late-season earthiness, bound by a robust gravy and delicate roof of mash. The accompanying jus, though a little salty, was deep and burly.
Salmon fillet was straightforward, certainly not memorable, well-seared and served incuriously with asparagus, watercress and a herb sauce. My fish and chips were completely underwhelming. The cod was cooked with some apparent skill, as were the chips, but the batter was unforgivably limp and sloppy, and detracted from an otherwise okay plate of food. The mashed (yes, mashed) peas were the highlight, but that’s hardly enough to elevate a dish that I can make better at home. I mean, for Christ’s sake, it’s fish and chips. No excuses, especially at this level. Just get it right.
The kitchen thankfully got serious again in the third act, with a properly sophisticated posse of desserts. Lemon meringue alaska was cleverly set off with basil; strawberry shortcake sundae was soft and brittle and candied in all the right places; and flirting with excellence was the chocolate bombe, which journeyed through molten cocoa, milk foam, honeycomb, and hot and salty caramel. A joy.
But now, Day Two, the second visit, like the worst sequel ever made. I ordered a large portion of moules marinière, a dish that was on the set menu, though not the a la carte. The waiter came back to tell me that the chef said “no”.
“Sorry, the chef says he can’t do it”.
He can’t make a bigger portion of something that’s already on the menu? Could he perhaps put two small portions in slightly larger pot? Or maybe I could just go to Fishers, the seafood restaurant around the corner, then come back for dessert?
After speaking to the manager and pointing out how absurd this was, she agreed, and a large portion of what was supposedly moules marinière arrived, but looking more like the biopsy scrapings of a lung cancer patient: phlegmy sacs of deathbed mussels, anaemic-orange, like a heap of nuclear-fallout Oompa Loompas, drowning in acid-reflux broth and raw shallots, and tasting like the person who made it hates me. Simply the worst pot of mussels I’ve ever not eaten.
The failure here isn’t really with the crustaceans, rather the exchange, the service, the inhospitable nature of it all. Time hasn’t placated me either; the memory still jars. I get more confused and horrified with each regurgitation. If you can’t meet a simple request, let alone execute a staple dish of cookery, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a restaurant, or a kitchen, or a customer.
To top it off, the vegetables arrived ten minutes later than the other dishes. I just had to ask Gemma, the other half, what she ordered. She couldn’t remember and had to look at the online menu. Fishcake, apparently.
How was it?
“Well, I couldn’t remember what I had, so forgettable”.
And there’s that word again: forgettable. Because you’ll walk out of the Ivy and remember the monied décor, the fawning service, and the convivial diners, but you certainly won’t remember the food, which is a shame because that’s the main reason people eat out in Bristol. The ingredients aren’t to blame here, rather the alchemy that makes them more than the sum of their parts.
I’ll visit again, sometime, someday, because I have no doubt the food will eventually get there. Until then, however, I wouldn’t want you to waste your time, your money, or your appetite while the kitchen chases the high standard set by the Ivy’s staff, its dining room, and its legacy – a standard that’s more je ne sais quoi and less je ne sais blah.
Words: Laith Al-Kaisy