Various inflictions and deflections, like illness and overseas trips, have delayed August’s Salty Cracker expedition, which consequently took place on Friday night. I chose Bizerca, lured by the online reviews which praised its warmth, unpretentiousness and good food as well as by the magical combinations of “French”, “fusion” and “bistro”, and wow was it worth the wait. We really like this place. We had a lovely evening, and there was an indecorous level of “oohing” and “aahing” over the food.
I have to say, at first glance it doesn’t look promising; the plastic chairs, glass walls, art deco plastic tables and eye-watering monochrome swirls over the bar all scream “trendoid!”, which in our experience is not often synonomous with good food. However, the potentially plastic ambience is warmed and redeemed by the service , which is headed by the lovely, chatty, arm-patty wife of the cook, and by the little touches – the menu being carried around on giant chalkboards, the fact that they have a cupboard for your coats. The printed menu is tiny, the daily-changing chalkboard one huge, which strikes me as the right balance for seasonal and inventive freshness; the dishes have a high proportion of interesting ingredients and combinations, not your standard nouvelle/fusion stuff. One of those menus where it’s really difficult to choose, and as soon as you’ve ordered you immediately wish you’d ordered something else, because it all looks so good.
We really liked the owner-lady: she explained the specials to us, laughed at the usual Salty Cracker silliness, and was very amenable to the idea that we might suddenly decide to order the special apple tart, which needs a 45-minute lead time, by semaphore. We spent the rest of the evening carefully not raising our hands above shoulder level, just in case dessert arrived as seventeen accidental apple pies we’d then have to eat. The waiters passed the Water Test quite adequately – a slightly raised eyebrow when we eschewed bottled water, but large glasses of tap water were provided as requested, and topped up if requested. (The table was a bit small for a jug, precluding our usual technique of the Large Jug). Our wine glasses were promptly filled. And their bread is simply wonderful – hot, crusty, brown, a light, dense crumb – perfect.
The “wow” started with the starters. I had a venison pâté/duck rilette combo, which was good, solid flavours, nicely prepared, but was raised to sublime levels with a sort of spicy relish thing, with I think cumin seeds in it – perfectly complementary flavours. (I’m kicking myself that I didn’t have a look at their home-made jams). Jo had a seared salami starter with peas, which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a French fusion menu, and was wonderful and slightly startling. Stv’s raw fish whatever-it-was came as a mould, and was exquisitely flavoured, possibly the winner of the starter courses (what was it, stvil? I can’t remember). Eckhard had the pork belly starter, which was simply evil. In a good way. The starter course was accompanied by a lot of “ooh” and “aah” and swapping of forks – the latter is a standard Salty Cracker practice, to the joy and/or despair of the restaurants, but the enthusiasm was damned well earned.
The starters arrived very promptly, the mains less so, which was probably our fault for making noises about not wanting the evening to be over too quickly. (Nice owner lady: “You can stay here until 3am as far as I’m concerned. I’ve told the staff to delay your mains a bit.”) Jo and Eckie both had bouillabaise, which looked amazing – a rich creamy sauce rather than the usual clear soup, but intensely flavoured, served with croutons and a garlic aioli. Stv had something game-steaky? (memory goes…) It was excellent, although I can’t remember the trimmings. I had a braised shoulder of veal, amazingly tender, with some kind of incredibly intense reduction whose wonderful flavour I couldn’t identify, and parsnips, which I adore and which far too few restaurants cook.
These are not nouvelle portions, which is not a trivial issue given the richness of the food. We were all pretty much groaning by the end of it, and I was the only one who ventured into dessert, on the strict understanding that Jo ate half, when everyone else had tea and coffee. Liquid-centred hot chocolate pudding, white chocolate crème brûlée, and a sort of intense berry sorbet thing which was absolutely essential in order to survive the chocolate, which was savage, again in a good way. I need to learn how to make this chocolate thing, it was delectable – rather like an inverted self-saucing pudding, but with very high quality dark chocolate and no restraint whatsoever.
The restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived, but by the time we left – for which read “rolled out the door, groaning” – it had filled up with a very lively, chatty, happy crowd. It’s quite noisy, but not intrusively so – the vibe is actually lovely. The service slows down a bit as the room fills up, understandably enough, but never to the point of being annoying, and the staff are smiley and pleasant. Also, parking is easy, lots around the corner with a car-guard. Which is fortunate, because we were too full to walk far.
It was a lovely evening, we like this place. On the Patent Jo Scale:
Atmosphere: 9 / 10 (unexpectedly warm and cosy given the trendoid tendencies)
Staff: 8 / 10 (Cheerful, attentive, unobtrusive.)
Service: 7 / 10 (a bit variable, slowed down as the place filled up)
Food: 9 / 10 (Yum.)
Value for money: 9 / 10 (really very reasonable prices for such carefully-prepared, creative dishes)