There's been a lot of debate about gastropubs and pubs and pub restaurants and even resto-pubs and sort-of-pubs, and whether linen tablecloths mean this or taking bookings means that.
The newly taken over and refurbished Albion pub in Bristol's posh Clifton quarter is a case in point. Yes, it is a pub: it has wooden tables - cleanly sanded, mind - real ales and bona fide drinkers. But it also has a chef's table of sorts, a separate restaurant space upstairs and, believe it or not, a private dining room.
Does it matter? Gastropub purists might tut at this latest mutation in the evolution of the British boozer. But sophistication doesn't mean you can't keep the revolution of the past 10 years real - especially when there are two guys in the kitchen whose menu smacks of enthusiasm and an unaffected fascination for food.
Varied menu Toby Gritten, 27, and Jake Platt, 24, met at Bristol favourite Bells Diner, where Gritten was head chef for two-and-a-half years before joining the Albion project. Platt had gone on to open One30, a new project from Bells' owner Christopher Wicks, when the pair were offered the chance to launch the Albion, owned by partners Owain George, Miles Johnson and Ian Rayner.
Before the opening the pair were given a two-month sabbatical to research local food and producers. The result is a varied, daily changing menu - a mix of mostly contemporary British and Mediterranean flavours. Dishes are listed almost literally by ingredient, and most feature only three or so elements: baked duck egg, oak-smoked chorizo, broad beans (£6); Cornish turbot, ox cheek, Somerset potato gratin (£17.50); or Bath chaps, white onion pure, grain mustard (£5.75).
The chaps, served as a starter (£5.75), are made with the tongue and lower jowl of a Gloucester Old Spot, which are brined for four days, then braised in mirepoix. The tongue is then rolled back up in the cheek and then, for service, slices are taken off and fried.
The chaps are an old West Country speciality. But if their inclusion sounds like classic, back-to-basics gastropub romanticism, think again. "We are doing food that is simple but making it slightly fancier," says Gritten. Platt agrees and says: "We both come from restaurant backgrounds and we like dishes to be clean. As much as we don't want to lose that pub element, in this environment it wouldn't work if it was a slapdash approach to how we serve the food."
With that in mind, the ploughman's (£6.75) is a minimalist arrangement around a big square plate, with Cheddar from award-winning producer Montgomery as well as goats' cheese, and wonderful home-made pickles such as apple and date. Sunday roasts feature a leg of lamb slow-roasted for nine hours, served with pea and mint pure (£12). The baked egg comes in dainty white cocotte dishes.
Similarly, the plate of lamb might feature confit shoulder, seared kidney and two ribs (£15.50). Sounds restauranty, but, as the kitchen butchers two whole carcasses a week themselves, the plate might also feature a piece of breast - boned, pressed and braised for four hours (to a classic Elizabeth David recipe) and cut into strips for goujons. "It's about balance, and using different elements at lunch and dinner," says Platt.
The approach suits Clifton's young and moneyed crowd, and works in the pub's slightly smarter-than-average design. The particular aim is to capture a market which is happy to spend money on good food but doesn't want to cook at home. The smaller-portioned - and cheaper - lunch menus are continued into the early evening to add flexibility, and there's a weekend brunch menu, too.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of where Platt and Gritten are taking pub food is the just-introduced tasting menu. Featuring the Bath chaps, the ploughman's as the cheese course, the lamb dish and maybe something like ham cooked in hay and parsley or a miniature plaice and chips, there will be about nine dishes, each accompanied not by wine but by beer or cider. "Instead of French, we call everything by its English name," says Gritten. "And the menu is another way to celebrate British food. It's fun."
Clearly children of the revolution, then, and happy to keep tweaking things a little bit more.
What's on the menu
- British shellfish, Somerset cider, parsley cream, £6.50
- Rabbit rillette and foie gras terrine, red onion jam, pickles, toast, £7
- Tagliatelle, summer chanterelles, aged Parmesan, Nunez de Prado olive oil, £10.50
- Skate wing, parsley mash, capers, meat juices, brown butter, £12.50
- Cornish fish stew, monkfish, sea bass, saffron potatoes, rouille (two sharing), £16
- Cote de boeuf, Anna potato, spinach, salt-roasted beetroot, £16
- Nectarine and rosemary tarte tatin, clotted cream (two sharing), £12
- Queen of puddings soufflé, vanilla ice-cream, £6
The Albion, Boyces Avenue, Clifton Village, Bristol BS8 4AA
Tel: 0117 973 3522. Website: www.thealbionclifton.co.uk