Bags of charm at The King’s Arms…
I’ve watched what was a big empty pub I pass every night on the way home suddenly come alive with activity.
Walls have been painted, shelves stocked, tables polished and pictures hung, while neighbours have wondered, once again, if the latest owner will fare any better than the previous incumbent.
The Black Bear, as it was last known, closed down just after Christmas after changing hands and names umpteen times in the past decade. It looked so forlorn, Coldplay could have written a song about it.
Now the gloom has gone, and there are heavy curtains, feathery lampshades and orange tulips nodding in vases on the bar.
I stopped in one morning for moist blueberry and apple breakfast muffins and discovered that the new landlord is Nick Armitage, owner of The Picturehouse just down the road and The Kingsdown Vaults in Cotham.
He has clear ambitions for The King’s Arms: to turn it back into a pub with bags of character, a serious wine list and a menu that makes folk more than happy to trudge up Blackboy Hill.
Armitage is off to a cracking start: the food we ate and the wine we drank, without wanting to gush, were nothing short of fantastic. In head chef Todd Francis, Armitage has clearly found a man he can trust with his reputation.
There are no starters as such, but the downstairs bar is laden with cold meats, cured fish, salads and bread from which you can pick and choose.
From the short but soon-to-be- extended wine list, we oohed and aahed over two superb reds – Mas Des Lauriers, Marseillan 2007 (175ml £4.25) and Chateau De Vieux Park Corbières La Selection 2005 (250ml £5.75) – and demolished our absurdly well-priced tapas plate (£5).
It featured torn, milky mozzarella with intensely sweet semi-dried tomatoes; fresh tomatoes dressed with parsley and capers; golden couscous with peppers and aubergine; bresaola, air-dried ham and salami; some nubbly black and green olives and marinated artichoke hearts.
It was served with salt-encrusted rosemary flatbread and slices of seeded brown loaf, both home-made and brilliant.
After that, we were bowled over by our main courses. Having expected no-nonsense pub grub, we were presented with beautifully arranged plates of unfussy, complementary flavours.
Again the pricing seemed very reasonable. A square of slow-cooked belly pork (£13.50) arrived with two thick, blushing circles of meaty tenderloin, nutty white beans, garlicky spinach, a sticky swirl of burnished gravy and two long, thin strips of crackling that were so crunchy a stolen bite made my head vibrate.
My roasted fillet of grey mullet (£12.50) had wonderfully crispy skin, and was served with a creamy, bacon-studded cockle and clam chowder so delicious I wanted to lick the bowl. A side order of thick- cut, well-salted, triple-cooked chips (£2.90) threw us into raptures.
We were really too full for pudding but just couldn’t help ourselves: two juicy, feather-light apple and cinnamon doughnuts were served crisp and warm with apple and custard ice cream (£4.90), and an earthenware dish full of soft, vanilla-flecked rice pudding (£4.90) was topped with caramelised sugar, three brandy-soaked prunes and a piece of sugar-dusted shortbread.
A man with a plan, Armitage deserves nothing but success. I’ll be spending my cash in The King’s Arms every chance I get – as will you once you’ve tried it.
A three-course meal for two with wine costs about £60 168 Whiteladies Road, Bristol, Tue to Fri 8am to 1am, Sat 10am to 1am, Sun and Mon 10am to midnight. Tel: 0117 973 592