I booked a solo lunch at Wilson’s whilst drunk, proving that my best decisions are made after a negroni or four. I knew I was in Bristol eating at Casamia and when both Chris and Sam — two Bristolians I know and trust — say it’s some of the best cooking in the city, it seems a no brainer. Backed by Zak, the head chef of Casamia, it really did feel like I was on to a winner long before I sat down alone in front of the blackboard and sipping on what appears to be half a pint of negroni. Nathan, my long suffering best friend from the area, really did miss out on this one. I offered. Twice. He said yes once before he remembered about the meeting he should be attending.
That’s a lot of names and a lot of numbers. But from here it’s a simple one: me, on my lonesome, a fantastic restaurant sommelier/manager, the cooking of one chef (and his tiny team) by the name of Jan Ostle, and possibly the best value menu in the country. Lunch is £25 for three courses, plus snacks and a glass of wine. Twenty five quid. Let that sink in. It’s less than a pair of good socks.
The meal starts with a plate of cured meat; very good pancetta and coppa, really excellent salami, pokey and almost offal-like in flavour. Superb sourdough, the crust a woody bark with earthy grain notes, and butter churned in-house. Instantly you get the impression that Jan is a details guy and his restaurant a place to improve upon every day.
First course is more a splay of canapés, but crikey, what a splay. The most delicate tartlet of pea, picked that very morning on his farm, dressed in clam juices. There is salted cream at the base and slithers of clam. It’s a celebration of the pea, seasoned by land and ocean. It’s incredible. The work of a chef looking inward as opposed to trawling through Instagram. A bouquet of garden herbs given brightness with tomato jelly, and a cucumber with turbot roe taramasalata and the prettiest of flowers. Those flowers have purpose. Every ingredient over the next hour and a half has purpose.
I get the scallop course as an extra I didn’t ask for. Chef likes the idea that some bloke who loves food has travelled to Bristol for a bit of scran on his own, and I like to believe that over him throwing me a freebie course to win points. The scallop is raw, with astringent pickled pink celery and a burnt creme fraiche that involves setting fire to hay as a cooking process. The balance is spot on and the pops of anise from Mexican tarragon a glorious way to tease out the nuanced notes. Main is Guinea fowl. Plate of breast, skin the colour of corn chowder, fat layer of fat. A tart of of courgette with the shortest of pastry, basil, and a slightly aerated sauce with lots of lemon. Delicious. Simple. Confident. On the side is the neck and head of the bird, deboned and stuffed with a mouselline of the innards. Every slice is topped with a liver parfait; dressed in a pokey salad of herbs and red wine vinegarette. It’s rich and it’s too much for one man who ate 24 courses the prior evening, but it’s very very good, well worth the apology I give for not finishing it in full.
Dessert is possibly the star of it all. The gooiest Italian meringue with a green sorbet of herbs, caramelised milk, and a crumb of puffed rice. It’s bright and just about sweet; the sorbet clean and delicate, popping with anise and green fruit notes. It’s going in my top ten dishes of the year. Again, without harping on, it’s what happens when a team looks inward at working with what they have best as opposed to what everyone else is doing. There’s petit fours including a black pepper jelly, but my mind is still on that dessert. A week later and it still is.
Every now and then I become aware that I’m eating at a restaurant that has the attention of an industry. Having made the cardinal sin of posting the picture of the menu scrawled upon the chalkboard on social media, my dining companion became my phone. Several big chefs, a GM and a sommelier, all very keen to hear about Wilson’s. Possibly because of them being almost entirely self-sufficient, but more, I feel, because they see what I did; that Jan is out there doing his thing and his thing alone, with total clarity, and that’s a rarity in cooking. The bill comes to less than £45. I’m almost embarrassed. Chris told me prior it’s the best cooking in Bristol. I message him after lunch; it’s not the best cooking in Bristol, it’s up there with the best in England.