Sometimes, quirkiness stands out like a wild boar charging senselessly through your front room; other times, it is less obvious, more comparable to a rare specimen you actively discover for yourself and less to unavoidable mammal-based incursions. Tucked away in Bristol’s St Werburghs, The Cauldron, from the outside, certainly sways towards the subtler end of this spectrum. But don’t judge the proverbial book by its cover.
As a gastronomic destination, this place is eye-catching in another way: namely, gas is (purposely) missing from the compact kitchen, whose patrons instead command grills, wood-fired ovens and plus-sized pans (or cauldrons, for the witchcraft-ers amongst us). Such an assemblage means it’s the first UK eatery to be wholly powered by solid fuels in over a century, allowing the team to concoct a spellbinding mixture of unique, innovative tastes.
Novelty extends beyond the pass, too. Parting the regally red curtains enveloping the entrance (later described by a fellow diner as having a ‘Moulin Rouge feel’) reveals a space that is part tavern, part family home, part restaurant. It’s an eclectic mix, with no-nonsense, polished dark wood furniture decorated with the modern hipster’s indoor perennial of choice, cacti. Then there’s a tapestry of some kind hung nonchalantly in one corner, and a suitably eccentric animal pastiche adorning the rest of the wall.
With vegan wines courtesy of Hallgarten and Druitt, and beers brewed in nearby Easton and St Werburghs itself, the drinks are equally multifarious, in an ethical and community-focused fashion that symbolises the entire spirit that founders, Henry Eldon and Lauren Nash Eldon, have so clearly imbued in the restaurant: anything and everything from laundry service to furniture crafting is a product of local graft. Indeed, The Cauldron just recently picked up Best Supporter of Local Produce at the Bristol Good Food Awards 2018 – a well-earned win.
If the décor and the drinks are novel, then the menu certainly reads like a poet’s anthology. There’s all manner of exciting produce, from allium and sea gems, to Lollo Biondi and coal oil – a feast for a thesaurus, let alone my rumbling stomach. And, happily, the enticing prose doesn’t disappoint.
The first arrival is quite possibly one of the most creative, yet straight-talking, starters I’ve encountered in some time. Crumbly, slightly sour cheese with clove, scattered over a stupendously silky anise-spiced parsnip puree, complete with rough chunks of sweet potato, kale crisps and a sheath of papad. Complementary is the middle name of this dish, with crunchy crisp offsetting creamy dairy; meanwhile, on a January evening, the earthy root veg, wholesome spices and diffusions of charcoal combine in a fuzzy, life-affirming style.
Having heard high praise of The Cauldron’s steaks, I opt for the exceptionally well-priced flat-iron, despite a tempting recommendation for the ‘new-on’ green fish curry. After a delicately arranged starter, the mishmash plating is, I confess, a little dispiriting. But looks are soon surpassed by the substance. “Charcoal Grilled to Pink”, as proclaimed on the menu, the steak is thin cut, tender, and lightly singed around the edges, the specialist charcoal once again coming up trumps. The skin-on chips are plentiful, thick, fluffy, and joined by a smattering of Purple Patch salad.
Portion sizes are as magnanimous for dessert, with my apple, mixed berry and marzipan strudel – befitting for a (sort of) post-Christmas winters night – served up as a gloriously sizeable segment. What’s more, it sits in a small tarn of delicious pouring cream, flickered with toasted almonds and fragmented petals – a refreshing change from the Borrower-sized accompaniments too often seen with more meagre puds. As if that wasn’t enough, the diverse digestifs beckon, and I can’t help but order a cockle-warming measure of Dorset Conker Coffee Liqueur.
It’s a lavish end to a meal rich in variety, creativity and originality. Exemplary food is more than matched by exceptional but easy-going service, so it’s no wonder the place gradually fills up with families, couples and friends, creating an honest, local and inclusive vibe that’s only fitting for a business so acutely engaged with its surrounding community.
What about the wild boar connection, I hear you ask? None, really – although one does appear in that interesting mural. But the metaphorical purpose stands: innovation and authenticity, like charcoal grills and local produce, doesn’t need to be sung from the rooftops, or thundered through the underlying house, for that matter, to be impressive. They can speak for themselves, and that’s exactly what The Cauldron lets its ingredients and affiliated methods do – one blissful mouthful after another.
Fresh Cheese with Clove & Anise Spiced Parsnip: £6.50
Flat-iron steak: £14.50
Wiper & True Kaleidoscope Pale Ale 500ml: £4.50
Dona Paula, Malbec, 175ml: £5.75
Dorset Conker Coffee Liqueur 50ml: £4