I had been given £150 to eat out (with the restriction that it was ‘a meal for 2’) by my employer – and took the opportunity to try Bells Diner, a place I’d been to many times in its previous guise as a ‘normal’ treat-type restaurant but which has morphed into a more ambitious ‘experimental’ kind of place. I’d probably not have risked my own money going there, as reviews veer from sublime to appalling, but I was happy to take the gamble with someone else’s money. I took a (female) friend with whom I regularly eat out at rather more economical venues. I eat veggies and fish – similarly my friend, but she does eat some meats.
We arrived bang on time and were shown to our table immediately – despite other groups being offered drinks in the waiting area while they perused the menu.
Our seat was in the corner, adjacent to an unused glazed door- giving us a fine view of the local youths hanging about, and them of us. The restaurant is not in the most savoury part of town (I know, I used to live there) and perhaps a curtain would have been a nice touch.
Our orders were taken promptly and a few minutes later a different waiter came and told us the bottle of wine we’d chosen was ‘OK’ (maybe meaning they had managed to find a bottle? Or that our selection was approved of?) and that the kitchen was happy to make the change to the dish we’d ordered (we both ordered the turbot without the accompanying oxtail ragout).
We were served our glasses of Champagne with the amuses (by yet another different waiter) – a shot glass of frothy squash soup (though I think they gave it a fancier name) which was very good, and a blue cheese gougere, which was cold and tasteless. One tiny detail that grated – the amuses were placed on the table arranged in a line on a long narrow platter– with the soups at one end and the gougeres at the other, which resulted in some unnecessary reaching over to serve ourselves.
The bread basket was bought round after the amuses – we had the brown soda bread and walnut/raisin bread; both were good but cold. (The basket came around again after the starters, but we didn’t take more as we didn’t want to fill up on starch).
For starters I had the goat cheese cannelloni and my friend had the pigeon. At this point I had to ask the waiter to pour some wine – the bottle had been bought over and placed on a windowsill out of our reach, and he’d shown no intention of pouring any. (It was a premier cru Chablis, and was very good).
The cannelloni comprised 2 cylinders about 1.5cm x 6cm of a tasty smooth cheese wrapped in a flavourful savoury orange coloured gel. I assume the gel was made of agar as it was the vegetarian option. Accompanying the cheese were apple balls, a variety of micro vegetables (allegedly ‘pickled’ but there was no evidence of that) and candied walnuts. The whole dish was good and tasty; but the walnuts were, I think, too aggressively crunchy alongside the soft cheese, and were too much of a contrast.
The pigeon, I was told, was quite gamey – and very rare. It came with medlar jelly and game liver pate. It was reported ‘good’.
We both had the turbot for the main course – minus the oxtail ragout - with herb gnocchi, salsify and unadvertised spinach. I don’t know how substantial the ragout would have been, but as served the dish was of adequate proportion and variety. The turbot was cooked well and the whole dish very tasty.
Then came another amuse – this evidently being the ‘look how crazy we are and how we mess with your head’ dish. Empty shot glasses were placed on the table. The waiter took a plastic squeezy bottle of violently green thick liquid (that looked exactly like washing-up liquid) and squeezed about 2cm into each glass. He then took what appeared to be a small fire extinguisher and filled the glasses with white foam. The overall effect being a glass of frothy soapy dishwater – the effect supported by the flavour which was sweet lemon/pine. My friend could not taste the pine –so maybe it was just the power of suggestion – anyway, the thing was drinkable but not exactly pleasant.
For desert I broke the habit of a lifetime and did not order the cheese. The sweet deserts sounded so good and multi-faceted that I thought just to have a piece of cheese would be a wasted opportunity.
I had the chocolate millefeulle with pain au chocolate ice-cream, praline parfait and salted caramel – all of which was delicious. My friend had crème brulee – I didn’t note what it came with, but I do remember that the brulee was turned out onto the plate, which is an unusual presentation.
By this point we calculated that we’d spent £145 of the £150 budget, leaving enough for one coffee between us - so we decided to go crazy and we each had a glass of a local apple brandy.
The final total was £157 (plus service which was automatically added at 10%) - £75 being for the food. Was it worth it? Well, had it been my own money I’d say no – although the service was mainly very good (I think we were served by at least 5 different waiters) there was a certain lack of attention to detail. The food was pleasant – the highlight for me being the goat cheese cannelloni –but the ‘clever’ glass of washing up liquid was a complete misfire. We came away feeling strangely sober, though the next morning I woke up hungry with a bit of a headache.
Would I go again? Yes, if someone else was paying!