The Swan Hotel, Almondsbury
Judging by the menu, The Swan’s head chef Nigel Bissett is certainly eager to show off his talents. Such gumption is admirable, particularly with a hungry nest of discerning food bloggers awaiting his fare, and this particular writer is instantly charmed by any cook who puts pigs' ears on the starters. We've been promised a foodie quiz for later on- one that possesses the ambition to bring people together by pitting them against one another- but before the cheaters can start logging into the pub WiFi, the food is leaving the kitchen. Before tucking in, a little liquid refreshment is in order: a spicy Marmalade Mule, to be specific. The drink blends tonsil-itching pleasures with therapeutic sweetness, and, to top it all off, hits the adorable mark with its retro jam-jar presentation. Even the best cocktail, however, benefits from a second drink riding shotgun, and the curiously titled Ménage a Trois, a fruity, soothing Californian red, is an admirable partner. It would be a good match for some Apple Arancini, which is a happy coincidence. The little golf-ball sized wonders are in vogue at the moment, which I am personally supportive of; they are a bit of a bugger to make at home, and the Swan's version is a welcome addition to the culinary conversation.
Better still is the aforementioned pig's ears. They're not just melting, salty, crunchy, and indulgent- although they are all those things- they also demonstrate that there is a real chef in the kitchen. It's like a secret language for those in the know; I'm aware of what it takes to make these things gorgeous, and Nigel has symbolically told me to relax about everything else. Then, some delicate flakes of tea-smoked salmon arrive atop little spoonfuls of salad leaves, and I'm beginning to get optimistic about the main course tasters.
The cod comes smothered in a well-balanced crust, and the fish is soft, but the star of this plate-by far- is the lentil salsa. It is absolutely delicious, and the rest of the table seems to agree; if I were a bolder man, I would have pressured Nigel for the recipe. The elongated beef burger is what it is, but it does the job, and the game stew is so homely, it's like the chef turned into a seventy year old grandmother for a moment. I would have preferred a stodgy dumpling instead of a roasted new potato, but you can't have everything, I suppose. Anyway, the verdict's in: the guy can cook.
Owners Garth and Katie Jackson approach the table to explain just what they want to achieve with this substantial venue. Their intentions seem pure: no pretentiousness with the dining experience, equal attention paid to non-eating drinkers, and an intense focus on food, drink and service. With starters costing around £6, mains around £11, and desserts £6, I would advise that they start boasting about value for money, too.
The job of a blogger is littered with perks, but one in the form of a quiz is rare. Even rarer is one that enlists further efforts from the kitchen. Blumenthal-esque creations are placed in front of us, and our taste-buds need to switch from pleasure-seeking to work-mode in order to pick out hidden ingredients. A vinyl-like sheet tastes, to me, like the rind of a parmesan block, but my Lampooning comrade, Shonette, wins half a point for saying mini-cheddars; the actual answer being cream cheese. She comes first overall, that half-point being the only thing keeping me in second place, but I'm not bitter. I don't mind not winning a bottle of lovely wine. I really couldn't care less. I don't even like wine. I'm not drinking a glass right now. Who's asking?
So, putting my brain-failure aside, I have to recommend The Swan. If the upstairs accommodation matches the downstairs experience (and I have no reason to doubt otherwise) this place could be a pretty special place to stay. It's only a fifteen minute drive from the centre of Bristol, with all the pleasures that comes from being away from it. I hope the opportunity arises for me to visit again, and see whether the Jacksons maintain the momentum needed to succeed with such a venture. The smart money's on the affirmative, in my opinion.