Restaurant Review: Harbour House

If you’re after riverside dining, it doesn’t get much better than Harbour House. Rosanna Spence visited one recent Friday evening to try the local, seasonal menu that celebrates the great and the good of southwest produce.

Like or loathe him, there’s no arguing that Jay Rayner is one of the most renowned restaurant critics of our time. I admit I’m a fan, so ever since he wrote in The Guardian that Harbour House is a “delightful place to be”, we’ve been keen to see if the eatery lived up to his hype. It’s good news: the two years that have passed since his glowing review have been very kind to Harbour House.

There’s no denying that the main attraction of the venue is its location. Set inside an impressive historic 19th century boatshed – designed by no other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself during the Clifton Suspension Bridge’s construction – you’d be hard pressed to find a more tranquil harbourside dining spot in Bristol’s centre (though I’ll give a well-earned nod to its neighbour Riverside here, which shares the same envious position by the water).

But even if you come for the location, you’ll stay for the food and drink. And though we were visiting for a laid back Friday dinner service, I wouldn’t hesitate to stop by for a quick bite or pint the next time I find myself wandering along that end of Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

That’s because Harbour House manages to be everything to everyone. The design is comfy enough to feel relaxed, but refined enough to warrant a celebratory booking. There’s a nautical pub feeling around the central bar, with one side seating groups of friends drinking and soaking up the views, with bustling tables of diners the other side. The cosy armchairs surrounding a few of the tables along a wooden-clad interior wall are crying out for a few cups of coffee, a Richard Osman novel and a typically drizzly Bristol day on the water to gaze out at.

When the sun shines though, the glass door walls of Brunel’s boatshed – supported by gorgeously ornate steel columns – are folded back to let people pour out onto the glorious terrace overlooking the water. It can feel like there’s no better place to be.

Menu makers

Members of the Harbour House team (who, by the way, are incredibly friendly and attentive) are understandably proud of the produce they purvey. One glance at the restaurant’s supplier map and you’ll see it’s a who’s who of food and drink brands. Producers range from 1.3 miles away – Bristol Distilling Co. – to 138 miles away. The latter of which is the family-run Wings of St Mawes in Cornwall, and the distance can be forgiven because the company specialises in sustainable, seasonal seafood delivered daily to Harbour House, meaning all fish was in the ocean 24 hours before being served. Local brewers, greengrocer, butcher and more make up the rest of the stellar cast. But rather than reel them all off, let’s meander through our menu choices…

Scallops with garlic and chilli
butter and chorizo gratin

I kicked off with glass of Aldwick Estate ‘Jubilate’ Classic Cuvée – from a fine Mendips vineyard not too far from Bristol Airport that I’ve had the joy of visiting before and will always choose if on the drinks list– a perfect kick of fizz to wake up your palate.

Before I dive into our food choices, I’d like to give an honourable mention to something I didn’t order – purely because it was on the sandwich menu and though I’d have loved an attempt at squeezing both lunch and dinner into one sitting I wasn’t sure the team would have appreciated me taking a nap on one of those inviting armchairs. I’ll be returning ASAP to order the roast beef ciabatta with rocket, caramelised onions, and honey and mustard relish. Why? Because it comes with a gravy dip, as every beef sandwich should.

Back to the task at hand, though. We ordered a delicate plate of English asparagus with wild garlic pesto, Grana Padano and crushed peanuts; and two grilled southwest scallops with a garlic and chilli butter and chorizo gratin. Though the servings may feel small to some, the flavours were big and we were grateful to have awakened our appetites, ready for the main event.

And what an event it was. My dining partner went for a generous portion of Gloucester-based Ben Creese Country Butcher lamb cutlets served with polenta, wild garlic pesto and seasonal greens. I followed in the hallowed footsteps of Mr Rayner and ordered the roast cod with butter beans, spicy N’duja and charred sweetheart cabbage. The flavours were well rounded, the cod was as buttery as the beans and the tomato based stew wrapped everything together in a silky blanket that had a satisfying kick to it.

When it came to dessert, we had very different ideas. My dining partner was determined to tackle the profiterole tower, piled high between layers of dark chocolate sauce, whipped cream and toasted hazelnuts. It’s meant for two (‘or not!’ the menu teases) but seeing as she’s pregnant we decided that counted. I, on the other hand, chose a Wogan coffee (one of my favourite local coffee roasters) affogato with a house-made rosemary shortbread. It was a divine way to see the last of the sun’s rays glitter on the water before waddling – probably more so than my pregnant counterpart – out the door to see what else the harbour had in store.