It takes a special kind of restaurant – and very special service – for someone (let alone fussy old me) to return there eleven years on the bounce, for what is arguably the most important meal of the year, Christmas lunch.
San Carlo, on Corn Street in Bristol –
“– Whoa, not London?” as I am sure many who know me are now crowing…
Ta daa! Yes! A restaurant outside of the M25 is worth writing about. Anyway, as I was saying, San Carlo in Bristol is one of a few in the United Kingdom to bear this brand – the others are in Birmingham, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester. The group has also side-stepped into the Big Smoke courtesy of Signor Sassi in Knightsbridge and the recently opened Cicchetti in Piccadilly. Watch this space.
The Bristol branch (the second to open) first came into play when my parents enjoyed a flying lunch there. Mumsie, being a long-time lover of lobster (as long as her Weight Watcher points allow it) was enthralled by the quality of cooking and abundance of wine (the wine list is nothing short of fantastic). In any case, the prospect of washing up after the Christmas meal was looming and so Daddio, equally captivated, booked us in for lunch on the 25th.
Over the last decade, our Christmas party has grown in covers (I’ll never forget the year my Aunt Betty was seduced by a particularly persistent Italian waiter) but the quality of food has remained the same. The San Carlo offers turkey – though thanks to the overwhelming quality of their Tournedos Rossini (pan-fried in butter to a perfect, perfect medium-rare and garnished with pâté) – the bird has been granted a year-on-year reprieve. San Carlo embraces modern Italian essentials such as Carpaccio (making my Christmas dinner a rather un-festive beef-then-beef affair) and pasta, meandering delicately around an abundance of seafood and shellfish landscapes (the latter will forever impress Mumsie). San Carlo frequently blends elements together – linguine tossed with lobster, garnished with the theatre of terracotta shell, or – if we stagger through to dessert – the bianco-e-nero profiteroles – one smothered with white chocolate, stuffed with milk chocolate cream, the other one, vice versa.
All washed down with wine, wine, wine. Wine to suit all budgets, from a cellar that must be at least four hundred bottles strong, ranging from failsafe Merlots and Sav Bs to the legendary Laurent Perrier Rosé, through to quirky ‘I’ve-never-seen-that-befores’ such as a magnum of Pino Grigio that provided a daft but as it turned out, necessary centrepiece for the table one year.
And yet many of you are screaming that Christmas is but one day of the year. Well, I have tried San Carlo on some of the other 364 days too, where the modern Italian cooking still screams from the rafters and the diners are equally happy immersing themselves in fresh seafood or steak, stone-baked pizza or a chef’s selection of the finest pasta this side of the 48th Parallel, served for the whole table, elevated like a trophy.
Food like this deserves to be shouted about, and San Carlo takes care of this all by itself. The restaurant is unashamedly Italian in design – open spaces made more open with mirrors and whitewash, garnished with grapevines hanging from spotlights far above our heads – it is nothing short of cavernous, beyond the scale of the Pantheon. Ever aware of the risks of alienation that such a room can compel, staff squeeze the atmosphere back in. They are mostly Italian (well, where else are they going to come from?) and are led in their suave, urgently animated and precise service by three managers who have the same auspicious charm and poise as that lovable Mafioso from every Mob film ever made (in the past eleven years, I have seen one of them rise from waiter to supervisor, to manager, like something from Goodfellas). It could not be more perfect.
As a restaurant group, San Carlo seems to have taken a beating on Google+ reviews, most of which are poorly spelled and lean towards cost, ignoring those ever-important details. Make no mistake, San Carlo is no Strada, Prezzo, or Bella Italia but it doesn’t try to be either – and you get what you pay for.
Not being one to try restaurants more than once (I have thousands to get through), I seldom search for emotional connections – you eat, you laugh, you drink, you pay – but San Carlo delivers soul on so many levels – the food is almost too good, the service is delivered impeccably, balanced with professionalism and comic timing to the point of improvised theatrics. You might propose that after eleven festive seasons and countless other trysts to San Carlo that I may be biased, but I will say with absolute conviction that after the first time sat under the grapevines, I knew that this place was very, very special. I particularly enjoy the window by the toilets, looking into the kitchen; transparency being the father of fabulous dining.
And so, on that note, I will have no problems in saying that this wonderful little find on a quiet street in a reasonably quiet city is not just worth writing about, but is – in my eyes at least – the best restaurant I have ever visited.
Mains from £ten to £thirty (depending on whether you slide towards pasta/pizza or to fish/seafood/steak).
Four-course Christmas lunch menu £sixty-five per person (Dec 2012), reservations essential (though leave a table for us, please).
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Originally posted 30th December 2012.