Sonny Stores, Bristol: “They do it perfectly well” – restaurant review | Food
Sonny Stores, 47 Raleigh Road, Bristol BS3 1QS (0117 966 0821). Starters £ 4 to £ 9, main courses £ 13 to £ 19, desserts £ 6, wines from £ 18
There is no sparkling river flowing in the middle of Raleigh Road in Bristol’s Southville district. There are no arctic snowfields of white linen lining the tables. The dining room is not polluted with the braying of media plutocrats of a kind that might make the most ardent pacifists think of ugly and violent thoughts. Because of these things, the prices won’t quite make you wince, like someone has stuck a vinegar-soaked finger into a recently-contracted wound. Or to put it another way, no one would look at the humble whitewashed space housing the Sonny stores in a corner of the residential area of Bristol and mistake it for the famous River Café. Until the food starts to arrive. And then: oh my god. My God. And thank you.
The comparison is not too forced. The chef, Pegs Quinn, spent five years cooking at the River Café in Hammersmith. He learned to make the silkiest of pasta. He learned the supple and subtle ways of the wood-fired oven. Bristolians who care about their dinner, and the city’s exciting independent restaurant sector suggests that there are many, should give thanks for what he learned there. All of this, and more, is now here.
After his stint by the Thames, Quinn brought his pasta skills to Bristol, cooking first at Bianchi’s and then at his sister restaurant Pasta Ripiena. During the lockdown, Quinn and his wife Mary Glynn ran a home-based sourdough pizza business. Last year they took over this street corner and turned it into an Italian grocery store with a few tables. They called it Sonny Stores after their son’s name. Now it’s just a restaurant with a chalkboard menu that changes throughout the week, room for 16 inside and a covered patio outside for a few more.
It’s a sunny spot with floor-to-ceiling windows framing people impatiently bending over plates of food, amid the solemn silence of so many closed front doors. I wonder if those who live across the road are angered by the tides of gossip that must sometimes come up to them, or are delighted at the brilliant opportunities to eat now on their doorstep. I hope it’s the latter.
We start with a plate of silver-backed and salted Calabrian anchovies, swimming in the best peppery olive oil, a bit of acidity and sprinkled with dried oregano. Our waiter tells us that she threaded them herself just before serving. I appreciate the detail. I take a photo and then save it to my phone. The plate reminds me of those oil paintings capturing the essence of the finer things in life through simplicity, something perhaps by Euan Uglow or Ffiona Lewis. (Look for them.)
These aren’t tiddler anchovies, those brown stripes on a plate coyly rolled up on themselves, apologetically. They are muscular and muscular specimens. These are the Schwarzeneggers of the anchovy world, from when Arnie was in his pouch laying on Muscle Beach, pulling all shapes and loving himself. They come with chunks of thick and still hot Jenga toast. Tear off the scabs. Add a fatty touch of savory savory. Everything is so good. A bowl of crispy little gem leaves becomes more than just a side salad with the addition of oily and salted roasted marcona almonds, thinly sliced Amalfi lemon slices and a blizzard of fresh Parmesan grated. This salad is not only dressed, it is fashioned and accessorized. It’s a star trick for £ 9.
It is clear that the kitchen is not only afraid of great flavors. It’s thrilled by them. A piece of pearly monkfish, tanned on its leading edges, accompanies the roasted fennel and the sweet explosions of datterini tomatoes, the swollen and blackened skin. On top is an anchovy pesto. When the plate is cleared, which is quickly the case, there is a mess of juice screaming for the rest of the bread. Spaghetti with bite and slurp is stacked with mussels and finely chopped tomatoes and cooked in white wine, leaving its own mop powerhouse. These dishes cost £ 19 and £ 13 respectively. It’s a very fair price for stacked plates.
The origins of cooking in the making of pizzas are still represented. The £ 15 price tag seems hefty for the bianco, made with bechamel and prosciutto and fennel pesto, but then it happens. It’s a big slice of pizza. The sourdough crust is bubbled and puffed up, and offers even more bread options for sauces that may have been left on, but don’t need to be. A bottle of gavi di gavi from a short list with a real choice under £ 30 holds up well to all that obvious musculature.
And now I’m babbling like a teenage boy in love, but it’s all so babbling-worthy. Usually, with menus this punchy, the ball is dropped somewhere. But no, here’s the dessert, and the balls are all where they belong. There’s a pristine Amalfi lemon pie with a crispy biscuit shell and the required zing. There is a soft and soothing tiramisu pillow. Best of all, there’s a crisp, crunchy meringue with poached white peaches and dollops of crème fraîche. It is a dessert of pure sunshine.
On the way back from the bathroom, I come across our server discussing a matter of great importance with Quinn, through his kitchen hatch. She turns to me. “How do you spell the meringue?” I laugh and say, “Well, I guess I must be useful for something.” I give him the spelling and tell Quinn that his meringue was really perfect, however they might spell it. Meringues are one of those things that are easy to do wrong, but hard to get perfectly. They absolutely get things here at Sonny stores. Allow me to express my gratitude to the Bristol based food writer and restaurant maven Mark Taylor for pointing me in his direction.
I leave with a burst of jealousy. Behind all the surrounding entrance gates there are people who can pass down the road for a plate or two here at any time, funds permitting. Of course, we all need local shops, but why not local restaurants? Why not this nearby restaurant? I shouldn’t be surprised it’s here, of course. It was in Bristol that they nailed the business of the small but perfectly trained independent. No grandiose and surging rivers. No acres of laundry. No plutocrats. Just great food, really well done.
The pandemic has been a driver of innovation in the hospitality industry and it is clear that some of these innovations will continue as restrictions are lifted. Lake District chef Simon Rogan has announced the relaunch of his seasonal three-course meal kit business, working with the company behind Lakes Cottage Holidays. One of the August menus at £ 45 per person, available throughout much of Britain, includes a shoulder of lamb stuffed from Herdwick with grilled zucchini and wild garlic, and sponge cake à la chamomile with gooseberry and sheep’s milk yogurt. Other companies pursuing the meal kit model in the English North West are the Northcote boutique hotel in Langho and Chef Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros group. Visit simonroganathome.fr.
The Clink charity, which operates restaurants and catering businesses inside prisons to provide training, skills and experience to inmates, has received a substantial £ 6million pledge over three years from the part of the Julia and Hans Rausing Trust. Clink, which currently has 14 prison projects, will now be able to expand that number to 70 prisons, enabling 2,000 men and women to obtain qualifications before their release, helping to reduce recidivism. TO theclinkcharity.org.
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