Whether or not you know your PX from your fino, you’ll find plenty to fortify here, says Amanda Nicholls
Any self-respecting restaurant these days needs itself an ethos. At this one, just opened on Clifton’s Regent Street after successes in Cardiff, Cowbridge and Penarth, it seems to be… sherry. Okay there is more to it than that – the sibling team behind this elegant eatery have woven in several strands of Spanish culture – but their passion for the trendy tipple (no, it’s sexy, argues the neon sign above the bar) permeates every element of Bar 44.
Certainly a more seductive take on the retro sherry trifle was a cocktail version created by the resident mixologists – with Brockmans gin, Micaela cream sherry, raspberry, vanilla and flaked almond. When you are a fervent frequenter of bars, it gets harder to be excited by a drinks list but 44’s had us dithering over everything from rhubarb and custard pornstar martinis to apple and elderflower sangria; anxious of contracting FOMO should we make a duff choice.
The look is contemporary but takes inspiration from the old Spanish styles. The tiled pillars were the subject of admiration while we perched at the bar, as was the sizeable red wine store (naturally) and the private dining rooms when we had a peek into the old bank vaults below – gorgeous and (good news) opening this month. Commissioned to create Iberia-inspired wall art for the venue was Bristol-based artist Andi Rivas who hails from southern Spain; and even the cava has a Gaudí print wrapped around the bottle. Cage lighting and sherry casks complete the cosmopolitan-meets-old-Cadiz concept.
Set right up with the red berry sangria – red wine, raspberry, orange and rum – nibbles were in order. While all around us seemed to be having the jamón (de rigeur) and very happy with the choice, it was delicious, 18-month-cured manchego with caramel notes for these two turophiles in the corner.
Our well-informed waiter (ex-Bells Diner) recommended the cabrales – a whipped blue cheese, light as air, with walnut, apple, sherry and two giant ears of chicory leaf. With that we paired buttery sweet leek and pea tortilla and then the smoky, crispy mullet with pisto. Both the fish and the finely chopped Spanish ratatouille were ideal with the white wine suggested in place of our usual sauvignon – Ondas Del Alma, Monterrei Godello. Rounded, balanced with fresh peach and floral notes, dear God – we decided – we liked Godello.
Over the course of the evening, the roast chicken croquetas with smoked morcilla and peas were managing to carve themselves a cracking reputation via social media reportage, and we agreed with all the favourable raving. Rich in taste without being garlicky or oily – the herby morcilla dehydrated to deliver a differing texture to the standard black pud – the dish was created just for the Bristol branch and showed the thought put into each eatery to illustrate that multiple restaurants needn’t necessarily equate to chain mentality.
It was dessert though, that was, by far and away, the victor. Not so much the vegan pistachio olive oil cake with flat peach – decent but ever so slightly let down by the peach thyme ice cream it was plated up with (next time it’ll be the mango, sherry and chocky trifle to be sure). But we need to talk about the PX espresso martini ice cream. We’d heard how good the homemade ices at Bar 44 were (fino citrus sorbet, orange curd yoghurt sorbet) still we didn’t expect the quality and character of this one. Enhanced by the sherry-caffeine combo it was laced with, it was absolutely divine, with a thick, creamy mouthfeel that made us wonder if marshmallow had been melted into it – and left us flying the flag for fortified wine too.
Sherry may be a big part of Bar 44 but if you’re not quite a convert yet, there’s still reason to visit whatever your penchant – with a proper vegan menu also on offer plus very reasonable ‘express’ lunches and even creative Spanish alternatives to the Sunday roast. ¡Salud!