Beckford Bottle Shop, Bath: ‘Somewhere to quiet all the bad thoughts’ – restaurant review | food

Beckford Bottle Shop, 5-8 Saville Row, Bath BA1 2QP (01225 809 302; beckfordbottleshop.com). Snacks and small plates £3.75-£7, cheese and charcuterie sharing platters £13, desserts £3.50-£7.50, wines from £24

Anybody with a modicum of imagination dreams occasionally of another life. We find ourselves on a Greek island for a couple of weeks and quickly picture never leaving and becoming instead this sun-slapped, unshaven version of ourselves, forever squiffy on chilled glasses of something rough. Until we remember our addiction to flat whites, reliable broadband and that we actually like having our nose stuffed into the unwashed armpit of a stranger on the Northern Line during the morning commute. Or we wander the streets of Greenwich Village and decide that this is who we really are; that we should own a brownstone stoop and sit on it. If only it wasn’t for the health insurance thing, and the gun ownership thing.

Each time I go to Bath, I have similar fantasies of other versions of me. I can imagine myself living in one of those high-ceilinged Georgian townhouses: wingback leather armchair, a glass of Madeira and a mildly dodgy collection of Victorian erotica. In this version of my life, I would be a regular at the Beckford Bottle Shop on the sweet, honey-stoned passageway that is Saville Row. I would be found on too many evenings in a state of mild disarray, overfilling one of the red banquettes that edge the room out the back of the wine shop. I would have a glass of whatever charming albariño they recommended, and then another and a third, while insisting that four plates of their anchovies on toast constituted dinner.

‘Melt away to nothing on the tongue’: cured mackerel. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

The Bottle Shop opened here in 2017 and is an offshoot of the Beckford Group, which owns four country pubs in Wiltshire and Somerset. It presents itself as a wine merchant, but with the added joy of various rooms upstairs and down, where you can drink your purchases for an added £15 corkage, rather than some garish multiple mark-up. Although they told me, candidly, that there’s an increasing number of ostentatiously spendy types in the city who must be serviced with fatly priced bottles, they are big in the £15 to £30 range.

God, but it’s civilised. It’s somewhere that can quiet all the bad thoughts. It’s exactly the place you’d want to be if, say, the Russians were facing off militarily against the whole of the Western world, the Antarctic ice shelf was crumbling into the sea and our morale blancmange of a prime minister had proved himself to be the shameless, truth-twisting, mendacious, oozing huckster we all knew he was. Thank God that’s not where we are, eh? But if we were, it’s good to know the grindingly pretty Beckford Bottle Shop would be there to make it all go away, one well-chosen glass at a time.

bath chaps
‘A nice nod to locality’: Bath chaps. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

At one end of the building is what they call the bistro. In the sense that the light-filled space has tables, chairs, waiters and a menu, the word does the job. The choice of dishes? Not so much. That’s less a criticism, and more an acknowledgment that what’s on offer here is not big plates of comfort food, but something to go alongside the thrilling wine selection. Everything on the two-dozen-strong bistro list, for example, is offered by the glass and carafe as well as the bottle. It kicks off with a Chateau Oumsiyat from Lebanon, works its way through French, Portuguese and Italian winemakers I’ve never heard of, and ends up somewhere in Greece.

Recently, a journalist asked for my sagely thoughts on the sort of small plates that accompany this list: where had they come from? Where were they going? The latter was easy to answer. They are going nowhere. I might feel a queasy weariness each time I have to type the words for fear of repetition. Doubtless, others roll their eyes at the proposition. Generally, however, it seems that many diners and chefs like the opportunity to be unshackled occasionally from the tyranny of big main courses built outwards from a chunk of star ingredient. As to where they came from, we long ago stopped referencing tapas, because it seems too bloody obvious.

Goat's curd with beetroot tartare.
‘Too much muffin and not enough beetroot’: goat’s curd with beetroot tartare. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Still, the menu at the Beckford Bottle Shop is the closest I’ve come to tapas with an RP British accent. Everything costs about £6 or £7. Obviously, there are those thumping anchovies on warm toast with rings of onion. With a nice nod to locality, there are Bath chaps; not the whole cured, pressed and breaded pig’s cheek the title describes, but precise square croquettes, demanding to be treated as finger food. There is a soft Bramley apple purée to lubricate the process. There are smoky pieces of cured mackerel, with smudges of black garlic, served warm so the oils run. They melt away to nothing on the tongue and are very much mourned when they are gone.

A lot of the menu pushes forward vegetables. We have courgette fritti, as fat as chip-shop chips with a pungent aioli, and sweet carrots, both orange and purple, dressed with a few seeds and chopped herbs. Using the word “tartare” to describe the chopped beetroot on a muffin with goat’s curd and hazelnut, is to kick the English language in the shins when no one is looking. To be a tartare it should be uncooked. I really would hope they boiled the beetroot first. More importantly it’s all too much muffin and not quite enough beetroot. Roasted cauliflower comes slapped about with a bacon jam, which is cheating but given my overheated relationship with bacon I’m not going to object. Non-meat eaters might feel differently. Finally, there’s a big dollop of good whipped cod’s roe dribbled with herb oil the color of a well-watered summer lawn, and toast with which to scoop it away.

Rhubarb with ice cream.
Finishing touch: rhubarb with ice-cream. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

All of this, alongside chocolate mousse, or a plate of rhubarb with milk ice-cream with a sweet biscuit crumb, makes for more than a few nibbles and a little less than the full lunch. But that’s fine because this is the Beckford Bottle Shop, not the Beckford Kitchen. The whole offering is clear from the start. After all, that menu starts with cheese or charcuterie selections. Indeed, given this is drinking food, they deserve extra points for having put so much thought into it. If I ever do decide to buy that townhouse and that wingback chair and that interesting library, I can guarantee to show it all some love. That’s never going to happen. I’m happy where I am. But it’s good to know that if the identity crisis ever hits, the Beckford Bottle Shop will be there waiting for me.

news bites

The largest ever Greggs Café has just opened inside a branch of Primark in Birmingham. The 130-seater includes donut-themed seating booths in shades of pink icing. At the same time the two companies have announced a collaboration on an 11-strong Greggs-branded clothing collection, including a hoodie with the legend ‘It’s a pastry thing’ along the sleeve, so you can literally wear your devotion to the steak slice ( greggs.co.uk).

Various bits of data on the impact of the pandemic on hospitality are emerging. A survey by analysts CGA and WiFi Solutions has found that Leeds currently has the healthiest sector of the UK’s most populous cities. In the four weeks to 15 January, it saw only a 0.2% drop in sales compared with the same period in 2019. In London it was a 19% drop. Meanwhile, Pret a Manger has reported its City of London stores are trading at 78% of pre pandemic levels, while its suburban outlets are reporting sales a third higher than before March 2020.

A new sushi restaurant in Leatherhead called Beluga has apologised profusely for a set of dress code terms and conditions which insisted women wore “sexy” outfits to gain admittance. It said “women can wear skinny jeans with sexy black ankle-strap heels and with a form fitting top”. The restaurant apologised via Instagram and said these rules had been added to the T&Cs “mistakenly”.

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1

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