After spending nearly two decades supplying top-end restaurants Chef Direct's Steve Downey has opened his own. Tom Vaughan visits a triumph of the recession era
There are two points to note about Taste. The first is that Britain would be a better place if there was a restaurant like this on every street. Second, it is only because of the distinctive business interests of owner Steve Downey that the restaurant is possible.
Downey's name will be familiar to chefs throughout the UK as the man behind Chef Direct, supplier of British foods to UK restaurants for the past 20 years. The inspiration for Taste came from a desire to pass on the low prices Downey secures on produce to the wider public, not just the industry. "I've always believed that the produce I sell to top restaurants needn't always be that exclusive," he says. "There should be places where you can come and feel comfortable and eat great British produce. We tried to make a classless restaurant."
The result, located in the heart of the ramshackle, colourful Cotswold stone St Nicholas Market in Bristol, is a triumph of the recession era and a restaurant of enduring appeal, where British produce previously destined for the tables of the Fat Duck and Le Gavroche is available in mains for less than £10 where builders enjoy a cured bacon sandwich next to lawyers wolfing down oysters or lobster where a hugely competitive butcher, grocer and fishmonger, exploiting Downey's link in the supply chain from boat and field to restaurant, are rolled into one concept alongside a stringently seasonal, great-value and informal restaurant.
The restaurant has 40 seats inside, some bar stools, some at tables and booths, then 18 seats at the covered picnic tables in the market. The phenomenal popularity that has seen the restaurant regularly do 150 covers for breakfast and lunch means an extension of 60 seats on the mezzanine level is coming soon. Because it relies on market toilets the restaurant has to close by 7pm, and although the extension will add lavatories, Downey says that closing early allows him to attract a high calibre of chef, as it offers them the rare opportunity to spend evenings with their kids. To keep costs down - Downey has tried to add no more than £2 per dish to account for staffing - diners order at the till and collect their own cutlery. "It's a bid to try and make good food the cheapest it can be in a restaurant setting," he says.
The space that isn't used by the restaurant sells meat, fish and seasonal vegetables such as wild garlic and purple sprouting broccoli. With restaurant-quality produce and sub-supermarket prices, it is understandably popular.
Despite the pull of the market, it is Taste's menu that's the true show-stopper. As soon as produce is in season Downey, naturally, has it. As a result, there can't be a restaurant in the UK more true to the seasons. The moment wild garlic, gulls' eggs, sea trout, wild salmon or sea kale becomes available, Taste has it on the menu at a highly competitive price. Few restaurants in the country can boast a morel-based main course for £9 - chicken leg with morels à la crème. Downey also wanted to reintroduce some more unusual British meats and, amazingly, since Taste opened, squirrel has been the biggest seller. Rook, elvers, cuttlefish - produce that rarely graces restaurant tables - is treated simply and expertly by Downey's chef team, headed up by Ross Wills.
A breakfast menu - which does about 90 covers - and an all-day dining menu sit alongside the jewel in the crown, which is the specials menu, devised each morning according to what arrives at the door.
The dishes that have appeared at Taste since it opened in September 2008 run into the hundreds, but here are just a few: beetroot soup with horseradish cream (£4.50), roast pollack with purple sprouting broccoli and anchovy and rosemary dressing (£8.50), skate with fennel potatoes and sherry vinegar sauce (£8.50), lamb sweetbreads, artichoke, peas and Madeira sauce (£8.50), baked sole with crab sauce (£9.50), chicken and ox tongue pie (£7), braised wild rabbit with mash (£7) and braised hare and chocolate with polenta (£8.50).
Meat comes from within a 10-mile radius of the restaurant Downey's ethical sourcing makes the fish choice all sustainably minded and everything, including the bread, is made on site. Downey's contacts even mean he's been able to pull chefs like Mark Hix and Anthony Demetre down for a one-off day in the kitchen.
Desserts come courtesy of Liz Carrad, formerly pastry chef at Markwick's. These, too, are inventive, seasonal and enticing and have included over the past six months quince and almond tart with crème anglaise, blood orange jelly with vanilla ice-cream, rice pudding with rhubarb compote, sourdough pancakes with caramelised banana, and a banana split of sheer heavenly decadence (all £4.75).
It's a bold statement to make, but if this restaurant was on every corner, it wouldn't take long for the whole of the UK to fall back in love with food.
Taste, 1-3 Exchange Avenue, St Nicholas Market, Bristol. Tel: 0117 927 2998
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Leek and potato soup with crème fraîche, £4.50
- Carrot, ginger and coconut soup, £4.50
- Braised octopus with fennel and olives, £6.50
- Gurnard, clams and butter sauce, £8.50
- Pigeon breast with Puy lentils, cabbage and Madeira jus, £8
- Warm chicken liver and bacon salad with poached egg, £6.50
- Apple and blackberry crumble served with crème fraîche, £4.75
- Blood orange sorbet, £4.75
- Bread and butter pudding with custard, £4.75
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