The much-discussed rate of Bristol restaurant openings means that, realistically, it’s nigh-on impossible to get round to each one – even if you’re lucky enough to have news of them drop into the inbox on a seemingly daily basis – but sometimes we see something special on the horizon, and stalk its progress on social media so intently, that we know a visit is a must.
Such was the case with Jamaica Street Stores – one of the most anticipated new kids on the block this season – and not least because of the crack team behind it, traced back to the likes of River Cottage Café, Bagel Boy and Poco. Expectations are high from the outset but, happily, from the minute we get past the red iron pillared frontage of the listed former screen-printers, we love what this little foodie supergroup have done with the place.
The Grade-II Edwardian surrounds make for a grand setting; the industrial character of the building kept at the fore but tempered by bountiful botany – gargantuan pot plants suspended from the high ceilings, on-trend terrariums, an actual tree growing from the middle of an off-centrepiece. There are a couple of minor finishing touches still to be sorted, but it’s opening week, and our attention is soon stolen by dreamy wall art including an illustration that Anna Higgie – based in the artists’ space above the restaurant – did for GQ Japan.
The green theme doesn’t stop at the décor, as is apparent after a chat with GM Mitch Church; but while sustainability, animal welfare, fair trade and environmental impact are core considerations, it’s not something they’re aiming to shout too loudly about, figuring that by now, it ought to be the done thing, rather than a USP. “It should be the standard, everybody should be doing it,” says Mitch, who ensures the ethos extends to all aspects of the business – down to the cleaning products, which are also low on the carbon footprint front.
If it’s not too busy, and you like your dishes cooked and assembled before your eyes, be sure to bag the best seats in the house, overlooking the open kitchen, and chat to good-humoured sous chef Paul, who lived in Bristol for years then worked near Normandy before the Jamaica Street opportunity presented itself. Initially terrified of the open kitchen, he admits, he’s taking well to his new role of chef on-show.
‘Are You Game?’ asks, boldly, a fruitily named Australian chardonnay on the ample wine menu, although predictably we end up armed with old favourites – the New Zealand sauvignon and an Argentinian malbec. Always eager to tick off uncharted tastes and combinations, choosing between the Lyme Bay brill with tiger’s milk and dulse (both new to these palates); and the pan-fried mackerel with pickled cucumber, rhubarb and blackberries, is too tricky so we save ourselves (and our waitress) the agony and order both.
There’s plenty to intrigue on the bill of fare, from a very much intentionally ‘raw’ section featuring Dartmoor lamb tartare with mysterious ‘green emulsion’, egg yolk semi-freddo, burnt leek and mint; to a lovely array of plant-based dishes. First to materialise at the chef’s table is the brill – cool pieces of fish, each placed in a prawn cracker with red pepper, the dulse (also known as sea lettuce flakes), and the habanero-infused coconut milk, which really lifts the flavour of the ensemble to pack a warm little punch.
Dishes are sent out the minute they are ready, and next we see head chef Billy Trigg busying himself with our oyster mushroom ravioli before bestowing it with smoked mushroom ketchup and pickled shitakes submerged in a dark dashi lagoon. It’s a deliciously autumnal arrangement that we instantly wish we’d ordered two of.
A generous portion of fried chicken thighs in Korean-spiced batter isn’t far behind, with kimchi; honey, paprika and peanut sambal; macerated kale and hot, hot habanero mayo – which comes with a word of warning from Paul. W thinks said warning is unwarranted, while I’m left wondering where a cold glass of milk is when you need it.
The seasonal mackerel dish is the favourite of our savoury picks; the tartness of the rhubarb and blackberries the perfect pairing for the charred fish – although upstaged, according to the sweet-toothed of our twosome, by the vegan and gluten-free banana and honeycomb pudding with rum cream and hazelnuts.
The style of the dishes on Billy’s menu provides a clue as to where he honed his craft (18 months as head chef at The Ethicurean) but there’s certainly something new in the mix too. It’s experimental with a thread of exoticism, and we’re so glad he ditched the idea of working abroad to stay in the South West with us, and the rest of this already well-oiled machine. And for anyone with mild concerns regarding gentrification: from what we can see, this is a distinctive yet down-to-earth project from a group of earnest, enthusiastic Bristol blokes who love the area and are keen to do things conscientiously. Could be worse.
An exciting opening for the ever shape-shifting Stokes Croft.