Breads and Cheeses

Sometimes you find really nice places in the most unobvious of locations.

I don’t go to Cabot Circus in Bristol that often, but when I do I am somewhat surprised by how busy the restaurant places are. There are loads of people queuing to eat at Nandos, Bella Italia always looks packed, as does Yo Sushi.

Though I have to say I was somewhat surprised to find out the other day that La Tasca at Cabot Circus had closed (and will be replaced by a Wagamama). I went to La Tasca last July and said back then:

It wasn’t awful, it was just okay, nothing special and I do think that the restaurant could have done a lot better.

I finished off by saying:

I think it might be a while before I go to La Tasca again…

I wonder if my experience was similar, as a result there was a lack of repeat custom and if you are losing sales, it makes sense to close.

It might be more that people have fallen out of favour with tapas and have moved onto other things… Nandos judging by the queues if you were to ask me.

We went to La Tasca back then, as we didn’t want to eat at the restaurant in Harvey Nichols, as my wife put it “she didn’t want to have a celebrationary dinner in an upmarket BHS or Primark!” So it was somewhat strange that on our most recent visit to Cabot Circus we did end up in the bar at Harvey Nichols.

This was a really peaceful haven from the hustle and bustle of the shopping quarter and it was nice to just sit down, relax and be waited upon.

We weren’t there for a meal, just a glass of wine and a snack. The wine list was comprehensive and interesting, and I thought very reasonable, a lot cheaper than I was expecting and anticipated. It was also very nice wine.

In terms of snacks we ordered the rustic homemade bread with Harvey Nichols olive oil and balsamic vinegar was a nice bar snack at just £3.50.

 rustic homemade bread with Harvey Nichols olive oil and balsamic vinegar

We also splashed out and went with the cheese board, artisan cheeses, served with Harvey Nichols chutney and homemade bread, which was a little more pricey at £8.00.

 cheese board, artisan cheeses, served with Harvey Nichols chutney and homemade bread

The breads were really nice and interesting. There were ciabatta style breadsticks, focaccia, and some very unusual gingerbread style bread (not quite gingerbread, but similar). The cheeses were really nice, there was a farmhouse cheddar, a type of brie and a hard Spanish cheese. The chutney was nice, not too strong, but still full of flavours. Alongside came some celery and apple. Both snacks were really tasty and complemented the wines we had chosen.

Now they do that thing, which I don’t really like “a discretionary 10% service charge will be added to all bills” and to be honest I don’t understand. Either include the “service” in the prices or let the customer make the choice about rewarding good service. Using a term like “discretionary” implies that it is a choice, but unless you had really terrible service, you wouldn’t likely say that you were going to not pay it. I also think it stops people tipping more!

Just as an aside really, what I did notice was that (even with the discretionary 10% service charge) many of the prices were quite reasonable. The different coffees available were cheaper than those you would find in a high street chain nearby, and unlike those where you would have to wait at the counter for your coffee, here you would have a waiter deliver the coffee to your table. Much more civilised, wouldn’t you say?

Overall this was a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle that is Cabot Circus and recommended for a quiet drink, whether that be wine or coffee.

Well that was a really nice pizza

On a recent visit to Cabot Circus we looked at where to eat, slightly constrained as were using some Tesco vouchers. We were restricted to Bella Italia, Cafe Rouge or Strada.

Strada was out of the running as it was up in Clifton Village. After our last experience at Bella Italia in Cabot, we made the decision to go to Cafe Rouge. However a quick look over the menu, meant though fine for most of us, there wasn’t anything that appealed to the two youngest members of our party. They were dead set on having pizza and spaghetti bolognese. No new tastes for them today, so a little downhearted we went to Bella Italia.

On our last visit to this branch, writing about it I said

Overall it wasn’t a bad experience, but on reflection I don’t think we will go again to that branch, I do expect that we will probably go to the Cribbs branch though.

We did venture to the Cribbs branch after that meal and had a much better experience. I suspect that did influence how we felt about going to the Cabot Circus branch.

It was just after noon on a Saturday and the place was already buzzing. Nando’s next door was already full! As we ate our meal the place to busier and fuller, even the outside tables were full (despite it been quite cold and windy, even for May). I noticed as we left too how busy everywhere was.

What I have noticed more and more is how few places seem to be able to cope with five people. Plenty of tables for twos and fours, but very little for five. I think in the future we will probably need to be more planned and book tables in advance otherwise I think we could be disappointed, especially as how busy it eventually came.

Though the place was buzzing, it wasn’t that busy, but it took ages for the menus to appear, in the end I actually needed to ask for them. We took our time and when asked what drinks we wanted we were ready to order the food.

So what of the meal?

Well I was pleased to see that they had a special chalked on their blackboard and I went with that. This was Pizza Argosta that was topped with lobster, saffron, harrisa, red peppers, courgettes, parsley and rosemary. I also thought very reasonably priced at £8.95.

This was a thin crust pizza (as they usually are at Bella Italia) that was well cooked and very well presented.

Pizza Argosta that was topped with lobster, saffron, harrisa, red peppers, courgettes, parsley and rosemary.

There was a good potion of toppings and you didn’t feel anything was missing (well apart from the rosemary). The lobster tasted of lobster, the saffron was certainly apparent, both in taste and colour. I liked the thinly sliced courgette which was just cooked and was delicious. Overall a really nice different pizza and very tasty.

My wife went with the Formaggio di Capra. This was a salad made with melting goat’s cheese and red pepper tapenade on giant ciabatta croutons. Along with baby spinach, rocket, green beans, caramelised onions, roasted red peppers, olives and fresh basil in a rosemary balsamic dressing.

Formaggio di Capra

She initially thought it was a little on the large side, but she enjoyed it and polished it off. I thought it was really good value for £8.95.

My son at his last visit to Bella Italia had gone with the Gamberoni at £9.95, that is described on the menu as eight succulent king prawns sautéed with spaghetti, garlic and chilli in a spicy pomodoro sauce. He decided to go down the route again and ordered it.

Gamberoni

I did think it was better presented the last time he had it. My son really enjoyed the dish again though, and finished it all off.

As for the pizza for the youngest, well that was in my opinion on the small side, but was enjoyed. I think if your child is older then eight or nine they would find that pizza too small. My youngest is four so was just right for lunch.

Pizza

The spaghetti bolognese was also enjoyed by my middle one especially as he got a nice generous portion of parmesan on top.

I don’t usually eat puddings, but sometimes it’s nice to share and we went with the Godfather. According to the online menu, this contains nutty fudge brownies, vanilla and chocolate ice cream, chocolate sauce, fresh cream, chocolate popping candy, dark chocolate sprinkles and a wafer curl. According to the menu we actually read in the restaurant it said honeycomb ice cream. We did get vanilla, but no chocolate popping candy. At this point the staff were very busy and it was only a minor thing, so couldn’t be bothered to make a fuss. I am not even sure I like the popping candy, so probably a better dish for it.

The only challenge was to pay the bill, and I was left standing for ages before I could pay the bill. That was disappointing.

Overall the food was very good and enjoyed by all, really well presented and cooked. Service was adequate, yes they were busy and apart from some minor glitches, was okay. However nothing to write home about, we have had much better service at other places. Would we go again? Yes I think we would.

Bella’ish

Cabot Circus

I do find it interesting how different branches of the same chain can, despite similar decor and identical menus, be such different dining experiences.

Bella Italia is one such beast, where I’ve had such diverse experiences at different branches. We usually go to Bella Italia at Cribbs Causeway and have had many lovely meals there. A recent experience at the branch at Cabot Circus was not as good. I should be clear that it wasn’t a horrible experience, just not as good I expected based on my experiences at the Cribbs branch.

So what was so different?



Well the first thing was the quality of the service, it was just okay, but I we didn’t feel the warmth of the welcome we’ve had elsewhere. I think part of the issue was that the place was really busy and the staff were pretty much rushed off their feet. That was another aspect that I felt was markedly different, was the atmosphere, the place was pretty much full and as a result felt very rushed and busy. However it doesn’t always have to be that way, eating at the Coal Grill and Bar the other day, which was in many ways just as busy, it didn’t feel busy and we didn’t feel rushed. The staff appeared to be calm and smiling, making us feel welcome, all of which added to a much better dining experience.

After observing an argument in the open kitchen between the head chef and I assume the branch manager in full view of the eating customers, I did wonder whether there was a staffing issue that wasn’t been resolved?

As you might expect with a full restaurant it took a little while for the food to appear, but I was disappointed that my son’s meal was delayed so he had to wait. True it was only about five minutes, but still… The reason it was delayed, and as I could see the kitchen and the service counter, was that his plate of food was served up with ours, but one of the waiting staff took it away and delivered it to another table. As a result the chef had to cook a fresh dish.

What about the food?



Well the Quattro Stagoni Pizza we shared was very nice, good quality pizza base, nice sauce, not too much cheese and generous toppings, well not too little and not too much, just right.

My two eldest children enjoyed their pasta dishes, though my youngest was disappointed with her pizza. She had ordered from the child’s menu, so we knew it wouldn’t be a huge pizza. However when it arrived it was really quite small, 7” probably in diameter. Having had the same menu item at Cribbs, this was very different, they had much larger children’s pizza. Ah well, different branch, maybe a new menu, cutting costs and all that.

We were asked if everything was okay, and at that time it was, so we said yes. What changed was the family at the table next to us some time later, received their children’s pizzas and they were at least 11” in diameter! We checked with the family, and yes they had ordered children’s pizza.

When we did get the bill, we did query this, and I have to give Bella Italia their credit that they did agree with us that this wasn’t right, as a result they reduced the bill and gave us a 1/3 off voucher for a future visit. I still though question the kitchen management and portion control that resulted in us receiving a pizza which was too small (and as it happens with the other family receiving pizzas which were too big).

Overall it wasn’t a bad experience, but on reflection I don’t think we will go again to that branch, I do expect that we will probably go to the Cribbs branch though.

Raking over the Coals

Cabot Circus

Out in Bristol and needing somewhere for lunch, we avoided the huge queue for Nando’s and went to the Coal Grill and Bar in Cabot Circus. I still can’t get over the popularity of Nando’s in Cabot Circus, everytime I pass it at lunchtime there is a queue of at least ten to twenty people wanting to eat there. It’s not as though there isn’t a choice as within literally spitting distance is Bella Italia, Giraffe, Frankie and Benny’s, La Tasca and Yo! Sushi. Within a few minutes are about another six to ten restaurants. However regardless of that choice and availability, people are still queuing for Nando’s. I think the other aspect that “confuses” me is that this isn’t some kind of area known for eating out, it’s a shopping centre, people are shopping and I would expect generally that most people want to stop for a reasonably quick lunch. Why would you then in addition spend anything up to half an hour queuing for lunch at Nando’s before you even sit down? Why? Okay I know it’s a place that serves chicken… but it’s chicken? It’s not even if the prices are that different then any of the other places around. Also it’s basically just chicken, whereas the other places have a little more choice on their menus. Ah well, one day I may understand… until then I will remain confused.

So we didn’t go to Nando’s, nor did we go to Yo! Sushi. In the main as the children were with us and though I know one of them loves sushi, the middle one would probably give it a go, the smallest of the three was adamant that she wanted pizza. I know for a fact that Yo! Sushi don’t do pizza, I am not even sure if they do any kind of kids menu. So we did consider Bella Italia, having had a fair few nice meals up in the Cribbs branch, but it was full. We did a quick look round at menus and decided to try out Coal.

We’ve never been before and though they have a few branches across the UK, they’re not that big a chain, so much so that all the branches they have, are listed complete with addresses on the back of a business card.

It was busy, but the polite and smiling manager found us a huge circular booth for the five of us. I forget sometimes that five is an odd number for eating out, it’s not two or four, which seems to be the norm for tables these days at restaurants. In the past it wasn’t too bad as the smallest member of the family would sit in a high chair next to us. She is now a little taller and “grown-up” so has a proper chair now.

We ordered drinks and perused the menu. I did feel that the kids menu lacked a little imagination, but my smallest was happy that they did pizza and the middle one was pleased to be able to choose Spaghetti Bolognese, one of his favourite dishes. Now in case you were thinking that my smallest is a little bit fussy, well she is in her own way, however having said that, she does enjoy linguine tossed with pesto and pancetta, and prefers mature cheddar cheese.

My eldest wasn’t quite sure what to have. He’s ten now and in many ways is too old for the kids menu and often prefers to have something from the main menu. After looking over the menu, he seemed to not know what to choose, so I suggested the Chimichanga (£9.95). This was a flour tortilla stuffed with spicy chicken, tomato salsa and cheese with a side of guacamole, sour cream and garlic rice. He does like this kind of thing and he had missed it when looking over the menu. He really liked it and finished the plate off. Personally I thought it lacked colour and looked a little drab, white tortilla on a bed of white rice with sour cream, with only a little guacamole and salad leaves for colour! Yes the inside of the tortilla had tomato, but that was offset by the white chicken!

Chimichanga flour tortilla stuffed with spicy chicken, tomato salsa and cheese with a side of guacamole, sour cream and garlic rice

My wife went with the Crayfish Salad (£9.65), crayfish tails and avocado mixed leaves, toasted croutons, sundried tomatoes. Though she enjoyed it she wasn’t too impressed with the sundried tomatoes as they lacked vitality and flavour. It did look very nice and certainly there were generous servings of both crayfish and avocado.

I was quite impressed with the range on the menu, but looking over it , and in the end, I decided on the Classic Burger (£9.45).

Classic burger tomato, lettuce, coal-slaw, spicy relish and chips

I really did fancy something from the grill, but likewise didn’t want to spend too much money. I liked how you could choose between having chicken or beef in your burger. I also think that a classic dish such as this gives you a really good idea on the quality of the ingredients and the effort that has gone into food preparation. Presentation was different, but looked impressive. The burger came in a good looking bun, a large slice of tomato and a single lettuce leaf. This was a very good burger, great texture, delicious and cooked to perfection. I also enjoyed the burger bun. The chips came in a miniature deep fat fryer, they were crispy, partly as they had been cooked twice, something I don’t always like, as they can be a little too greasy. Accompanying was some coleslaw and a spicy relish. I enjoyed the whole dish and it worked very well.

The service was excellent, just right, not too over the top that you find at some places, and likewise neither the unavailable kind you get at others. It was friendly and professional and family friendly.

Overall I was really pleased with the whole experience at Coal, it was a nice environment, comfortable atmosphere, great food, excellent service. All in all I enjoyed the meal, and would certainly visit again.

La Tasca, no hay amor más

Though my plan to celebrate my anniversary with dinner at the Second Floor Bristol, in Harvey Nichols was scuppered by my wife who decided no matter how nice the restaurant looked and how interesting the menu, she didn’t want to have a celebrationary dinner in an upmarket BHS or Primark! Anyway the Second Floor Bristol is a really stupid name for a restaurant. Okay so it’s on the second floor, I get that. It’s in Bristol, I get that. Why though is it named after where it is? Are they so confident about the food and the location, that they don’t think it needs a proper name? Well after my wife turned down this choice of mine, I needed to choose somewhere else.

So having to make a quick decision, I decided on La Tasca. My last few visits have been okay and I do like tapas. The end result wasn’t as good as I remember and certainly I don’t think we’ll go again. It wasn’t awful, it was just okay, nothing special and I do think that the restaurant could have done a lot better.

As it was a Sunday they had their Foolish Feast special, so we went with that. I chose that, partly to be cost effective, but in the main it was easy. I almost laughed at the photograph on the back of the menu, which appeared to be of an authentic Spanish tapas bar and thought, now that would be wonderful, however I knew that in reality the stuff we were going to get would be nice, but it wouldn’t be genuine in the way a proper Spanish tapas bar can be. I wonder why now, why we even went in there…

As we discussed the menu, we both realised that a Greek meze place would probably have been a much better choice, but it was late, we had sat down, we had ordered coffee. A bit too late to do anything then.

La Tasca

The special was £14.95 per person. You start off with the Tabla Especial – to share between two Serrano ham, bread and mixed olives, served with an extra-virgin olive oil & sherry vinegar dip.

Good ham, nice olives and measly amount of bread…. really you needed a bit more bread than you got.

The Paella Valenciana ‘La Tasca’ with chicken, Galician mussels, king prawns, squid, lemon wedges, char-grilled aubergine and peppers; could have been so good, but was let down because it was reheated. As a result the rice was stodgy, the squid was chewy, as were the mussels. I can appreciate that it can’t be easy to cook paella for these kinds of menus, however either do it properly or don’t do it all! Reheating paella is not how it is done in Spain. It kinds of puts me off going to La Tasca and ordering a “proper” paella in case that is a reheated dish. The flavour was okay, but the textures let this dish down.

We ordered one of everything and waited for it to arrive.

This is one dish which really you shouldn’t get wrong, it’s a really simple dish. Patatas Bravas is deep fried potato, with spicy tomato sauce. However they did a bit of a botch job. The potato wasn’t crispy enough and some of it was well undercooked too.

I did enjoy the Albóndigas, beef & pork meatballs, in a rich, slow-cooked tomato sauce. They had good texture, nice flavour and a good sauce. Well it was a good sauce until we worked out that it tasted like the tomato sauce in tinned spaghetti hoops!

I also enjoyed the Croquetas de Pollo. These were hand-crumbed with chicken breast and served with roasted garlic mayonnaise. They were crisp on the outside and lovely and soft on the inside. They melted in the mouth and had a really nice flavour.

The Spinach Tortilla, a spinach omelette served with a spicy red pepper tapenade and roasted garlic mayonnaise was okay, but I did feel it lacked flavour.

Apart from been a little too salty, the Pescado Blanco Frito which was deep-fried white fish, in a special-recipe San Miguel batter, served with homemade paprika & roasted garlic mayonnaise and lemon. The batter was crisp and crunchy, but I did feel that the fish needed more natural flavour. You really needed to dip it in the mayonnaise.

As you might expect you couldn’t really mess up the Baby Leaf Green Salad, served with balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil dressing on the side.

Overall there were some really nice dishes that we had at the table and alas there were some that really didn’t work out very well. I think it might be a while before I go to La Tasca again, I really do need to find a proper local Spanish tapas bar.

What is it with Nando’s?

Cabot Circus

Why is it so popular? Come on tell me why?

Now I will admit I have never actually been to a Nando’s so couldn’t tell you if it was any good or not.

I recently was in Bristol’s Cabot Circus twice within a week around lunchtime. Though there are a wide range of eating establishments in the area, each time I was there there was a huge queue for the Nando’s. Around 20-30 people queuing outside. At all the other places there were no queues. Doesn’t happen all the time, the Nando’s at Gloucester Quays never seems to have a queue!

So it’s very popular, but I am not sure why?

They do grilled chicken with a hot marinade with side orders.

Would you know if they use fresh raw chicken, or is it pre-cooked and just “flamed” on the grill?

If you are into that Nando’s what is it that makes people queue? Should I try it out? Or not touch it with a barge pole?