High-flying industry pros – by way of The Square, Launceston Place and Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – have joined forces to bring Bristol a super-relaxed new culinary concept that’s as focused on the wine as the warm hospitality and innovative menu, in a contemporary 36-seater setting.
Wellbourne is Bristol’s most talked about new opening in as long as we can remember; their vol au vents already the stuff of Instagram legend despite, at the time of our visit, having been open for less than a week. To be found on the corner of The Mall, its inconspicuous slate grey exterior belies a minimalist yet vibrant space within. Simple in style with its herringbone wooden floors, teal, grey and neutral colour scheme and wooden tables with comfy cushioned chairs, the focal point is the chic metal-topped statement bar which guards an enormous wine fridge.
Open seven days a week, for weekend brunch through to open-sandwich lunches, incredibly delicious bar snacks and three-course à la carte dinners with just five options per course, it’s a pared-back, super-seasonal offering. Slouch at the bar over an excellent glass of Marc Hebrart premier cru champagne, or perch on a stool in the window with a bottle of Wiper and True craft beer and watch the world go by – the idea is that it’s as much a haunt for locals wanting to pop in for a drink as those on the hunt for a memorable meal.
The name Wellbourne is a geographical name-blending of the trio’s hometowns of Wellington, New Zealand, Bournemouth and Camberwell, though they figured Wellbourne rolled off the tongue more easily than Wellbournewell.
Wellbourne, Bristol, review
With two well-known chefs behind the stoves, Ross Gibbens and Michael Kennedy (as well as a third Dabbous alumni whose culinary skills are also immaculate), it’s fair to say that Wellbourne’s cooking game is stronger than many. Michael’s CV highlights also include Corrigan’s Mayfair, while Ross trained at Le Manoir under Raymond Blanc, held senior roles at The Square and The Vineyard at Stockcross before his most recent head chef positions at Launceston Place and Dabbous.
Surprisingly then, perhaps, the food is seemingly simple – albeit with some unexpected flavour pairings and unusual ingredients. Butter is infused with fig leaf to go with top-notch homemade sourdough, grilled English sweetcorn is served with chicken skin and Piment d’Espelette (a type of pepper) and mackerel tartare is joined by cobnuts, gooseberries and plum kernel oil. And as the seasons change, day-by-day, week-by-week, so too do the dishes.
The vol au vents are things of beauty. Forget the soggy-bottomed, tasteless morsels of ’80s buffets, Wellbourne’s version are crisp and beautifully bronzed and filled with the likes of moreish diced veal, meaty mushrooms or, our favourite, shrimp, which also packed a lovely late hit of heat and spice.
A Red Russian tomato – a variety from the south of France – is compressed before its juices are seasoned with celery and citrus and then poured over the fruit at the table. Supremely tender, singing of itself, and topped with slivers of fresh almond, basil and wild horseradish, it’s a summery plateful you’ll want to return for.
The cod too, perfectly pearlescent and flaking with just the nudge of a fork, was silky, soft and served with juicy sea lettuce, aster, yellow courgettes and mussels. The mussel cooking liquor was incorporated into a vinaigrette and a rapeseed mayo added another layer of flavour to this gorgeously warming dish.
Less popular (but only just) was the roast turbot, which came with a golden fosse way fleece sheep’s cheese and crumb crust and a bed of coco de paimpol (similar to a butterbean) and girolles. A hearty, rich dish with a lovely kick of subtly salty cheese, my dining companion would have liked a bit more of a sauce, and he didn’t like not having a knife, but it was the ideal match for our fabulous Venetian Custoza white wine – a trebbiano blend with a little bit of body, freshness and notes of orange – we’d been sipping for much of the evening.
Plates are so well judged, and so well balanced as to feel effortlessly intuitive and this is no less true of ‘the afters’ selection, which appears to be anything but an after-thought. Even the simplest offering, charentais melon and lemon verbena appeals, as too does the black pudding tart with Devon blue and turnip tops.
Usually a bit of a take-it-or-leave-it girl when it comes to dessert, we only managed to narrow it down to three. The winner was the show piece lemon leaf number featuring the finest pastry ring rolled in demerara and topped with some sort of sea of still lemonade loveliness dispensed from a Co2 canister, beneath which was a perfectly-pitched smoked mignonette pepper ice-cream – they use the middle as it’s sweeter – and juicy bilberries which popped pleasingly on the tongue. The slow-cooked chocolate fondant with crushed fig leaf and Arbequina olive oil was take-your-breath-away intense for an instant chocolatey hit, though a little rich for me, and I loved the simplicity of peach poached in jasmine tea with milk curd, fresh Somerset honeycomb and marigold.
That Marc Hebrart premier cru champagne we tried on arrival is £16 a glass but there’s also a Spanish cava for £6.50. Similarly, house wine starts at a very reasonable £4 a glass and go up to £300 a bottle for a Chateau Figeac, but they’re also doing smaller 75ml measures of some of the good stuff, should keen oenophiles want to broaden their knowledge and try some amazing wines in the process.
What else did you like/dislike?
Martin, who’s front of house, does an incredible job of working the room and presiding over the wine fridge, and all of the staff – special mention to Andrew too – offer naturally intuitive service. This is a team who between them have worked with some of the biggest names in the industry and it shows on every level.
Wellbourne, Bristol, the verdict
With starters at £7.50-£9 and mains at £14-£20, the team behind Wellbourne have thought carefully about food economy and chosen to make their bar and restaurant an accessible option for most, and while they admit they were worried people wouldn’t get the concept, this is absolutely a huge highlight of the south-west culinary landscape. It’s the sort of meal you don’t want to end, and we have zero doubt that this will be up there as one of the most memorable foodie experiences of the year. We’re going back, pronto (if we can get a table)…