|Clifton chic: Flour & Ash. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt|
by Jay Rayner, The Guardian, December 14, 2015
Flour & Ash, 203b Cheltenham Road, Bristol (0117 908 3228). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £40-£60.
Most restaurant chefs exist on a continuum from “feeder” to “nerd”. We all know the feeders, the ones who have made a life in the kitchen because satisfying others is a means by which to satisfy themselves. They are instinctive cooks, bashers and boshers who use their own appetites to define why something tastes good. The nerds, by contrast, are in it for the process. There is a functionality to cooking, a defined set of instructions which, if understood and followed, will always lead to the right outcome. For them cooking is a self-contained end in itself.
Of course, it really is a continuum. You can have nerdy feeders who follow rules very tightly but take pleasure in the way the results are enjoyed by others. Instinctively though, I have always assumed I sided with the hardcore feeders, perhaps because, at home, I am one. I do not bake, because I know I am not disciplined or controlled enough to follow the rules. I see a cast-iron recipe as an invitation to fail. Likewise, it is the menus which shout generosity and eagerness to please which gladden my heart, and the ones that give me the temperature at which the egg was cooked which make it sink slightly.
Which makes my utter delight in Flour & Ash in Bristol all the more surprising, if only to me rather than them. For in its quiet way it is about as nerdy a restaurant as you will hope to find. It is about two things. It is about the practise-makes-perfect of sourdough bakery – the “flour” of the name – and the careful management of a wood-fired oven as the only cooking source – from which comes “ash”. All of this is used to make some of the best pizzas I have eaten in a long time.
‘All heat and fire and fresh leaf crunch’: chorizo and rocket pizza. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt
It is very much Clifton chic; one in which the human world knowingly makes its peace with nature. There are metal-topped wooden trestle tables down the middle of the room, and dangling industrial lights from the ceiling, as well as displays of firewood under the bar, and bare boards for the floor. The kitchen is half open, the small space dominated by the dome of its wood-fired oven, the pleasing red-orange burn of the faggots pushed deep to the back. If it’s cooked at Flour & Ash, it’s almost certainly cooked in there.
It is put to glorious use in a starter of huge tiger prawns, four of them, roasted in a garlic and herb butter until the edges and wispy tentacles have blackened and the shells have turned the shade of a dying sunset. It costs £7, which is a remarkable price. I can think of restaurants that would charge the same for just two of these. With the prawns come hunks of their sourdough: a deep acidic tang to the elastic crumb, a satisfying crunch to the crust. It is bread made by someone who cares just a little too much, which is the only way to get it right. It’s a bread that stands up to comparison with some of the best available in Britain: at Tom Kemble’s restaurant inside Bonhams, for example, or at the new Fat Duck.
There is a stew of slow-cooked kidney beans, with lumps of chorizo and mint, all light and darkness and heavy browed intent. There’s a simple fillet of mackerel with the crispest of skins, slicked with coriander and garlic. Cubes of butternut squash are fried to crisp with a hot pepper sauce and sage leaves, then buried under a snowfall of fresh parmesan. And for absent minded dipping and dredging there’s labneh, the Lebanese fresh cheese whipped to peaks, and to eat it, pieces of their sourdough flat bread, with that elasticity in the middle and charred bubbles on the edges.
‘To soothe’: spinach, olive and free range egg pizza. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt
From all this you already know that the pizzas are going to be cracking: they have a way with superb ingredients; they have marvellous bread; they have a wood-fired oven. But I’ll tell you about those pizzas anyway, just to make you jealous.
The majority cost around £12, with the meatier ones topping out at £14. (Though all are £9 if ordered before 6.30pm). There is a pizza dressed with spinach that has wilted in the heat, with black olives, handfuls of grana padano cheese, salted anchovies and, at its heart to soothe, a cracked egg.
A pizza of chorizo and pickled chillies turns up under a thicket of wild rocket, to make it all heat and fire and fresh leaf crunch. Or if you want uncompromising, go for salted anchovies and garlic with buffalo mozzarella. Both go very nicely with their light, sprightly Vino Verde at £19.50 a bottle. (They say they make the same amount of money from all their bottles, so very little here is more than £24). From the non-tomato list the star is ox cheek simmered down and down in red wine to become a ragu and then spread out in tangles across the pizza base and roasted with béchamel, grana padano and basil.
Just desserts: a selection of ice creams. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt
There’s also a pleasing commitment to ingredients from close by. The three cheeses pizza is made with Bath Blue, Ragstone goat’s cheese and Ogleshield; the mixed leaf side salad is made with produce from the Severn Project, a set of urban farms in Bristol, providing work and experience for people who might otherwise find accessing the job market difficult. Yes, it’s so very Bristol. And it’s also so very lovely.
For dessert there is just one option: ices, about a dozen different varieties, almost all of which we try. There’s a perfectly balanced dark chocolate which just steers away from being cloying to become moreish. There’s a killer blackcurrant sorbet, and a sweet light basil ice cream which is the perfect thing after the powerful hit of chillies and chorizo. There’s a green tea ice cream, a nutmeg and bay leaf and a peanut butter, and even the latter manages not to be overwhelming.
Afterwards I talk to one of the intense-looking young men running the kitchen. I’m curious. Flour & Ash has been open a year. Have there not been attempts to open other branches? He says they’d like to. “But it requires me to teach them to bake sourdough bread and that’s not simple”. No, it most certainly isn’t. That’s the thing about Flour & Ash. It takes the most straightforward of ideas, the pizzeria, and gives it as much attention as possible. It’s a little bit nerdy. But it feeds you. And it’s glorious.
Jay’s news bites
■ Talking of baking loveliness, on Rose Street in London’s Covent Garden is Bageriet, a Swedish bakery, which comes into its own at this time of year. In the original Swedish the names of their products sound fabulous: Pepparnötter and Ungherrar, Vaniljhorn and Nötskorpor have poetry. The English descriptions – spiced almond biscuits and vanilla biscuits with apricot jam (known as young gentlemen) - do their own PR (bageriet.co.uk).
■ At last: the perfect Christmas present for David Cameron: J & D Foods of Seattle’s pants smelling of cured pig. As their website puts it: ‘J&D’s Bacon Scented Underwear represents the gold standard of meat-scented luxury undergarments.’ The scent lasts several washes (dfoods.net).
■ You’ve got to admire their bravery. Noodle and ramen restaurant Wagamama finally open a branch in New York, post summer 2016. What will New Yorkers, exceptionally well versed in the way of the noodle, make of it? (wagamama.us)
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Jay Rayner from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.