Bath's newest restaurant wants to be Bath's best restaurant [WFJ #51]
The Beckford group has the makings of a food destination
List some of the best pubs to visit in the Frome area, and there’s a good chance you’ll mention The Talbot in Mells, for its country inn aesthetics and post-riverside-walk pints, or The Bath Arms in Horningsham, as much for its similar charms as its pies and ploughmans.
It’s not immediately apparent, but both pubs belong to Beckford, a group who run six hospitality venues across the South West, characterised – at least, in my observation – by intentional rusticism, affordable luxury, and being about the only convivial places to drink, eat, and socialise for miles around.
Which is why, opening in the middle of Bath about five weeks ago, Beckford’s latest addition – the Beckford Canteen – comes as a bit of a surprise. While it doesn’t resemble the format we’re more used to (apart from the affordable luxury), the exploration into not-so familiar territory turns out to be far from ill-advised.
Namely that’s because of what’s on the menu. The Beckford Canteen is the group’s first proper, food-forward restaurant. Its sister venues’ food is at times satisfying, sustaining, and easy to understand (and at other times, clearly not a facet upon which they want to hang their hat), while The Beckford Bottle Shop, almost on the same street to the Canteen, is more interested in the pursuit of good wine, rather than the full extent of what goes with it.
To better understand this, note that, since the restaurant found itself by good chance a very accomplished chef, ‘Canteen’ is something of a misnomer.
“When we found the site,” Beckford Canteen and Beckford Bottle Shop operations director Ollie Sutton tells The WFJ, “we kind of jumped on the name ‘Canteen’. A lot of that was really about what we thought we were going to end up doing here. We envisaged more all-day dining. And then George came on the radar, and it changed everything to a degree.”
Before moving to Somerset, Beckford Canteen’s head chef George Barson cooked at River Cottage and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, among others, going on to lead the kitchens of Kitty Fishers (which has become a Mayfair favourite, among Mayfair society or not), Cora Pearl, and Wild By Tart.
What that all means is the Canteen is able to offer up a more technical and more refined type of cooking than what its noun would suggest. It is what you might call a “modern British” approach – a term that has signalled various things over the years, but if you were to ask Ollie in the context of the Canteen, “The ‘British’ is the providence of our ingredients. The ‘modern’ element is that we are using methods and techniques that are not necessarily British. It's kind of like, we wouldn't be afraid to serve a ravioli and call that modern British because we'd be using flour milled in the UK, and the filling would be British seasonal ingredients.”
As much as for the sake of food miles and seasonality, sourcing of said ingredients comes with it a sense of transparency – the kitchen uses producers and suppliers like Trenchmore Farm in Sussex, William Rose butchers in Somerset & Wiltshire, and The Community Farm – an organic farm and not-for-profit social enterprise in the Chew Valley. “We’re also very keen on expanding this idea of, you know, if you've got an allotment and you've got a glut of something, bring it in,” Ollie says. “The kitchen will use it and we'll give you a free feed. I really like that, and George is really keen to push it.”
The care towards provenance, the cooking itself, and the desire to create a restaurant in the first place would all seem a bit pointless if the food turns out to be naff. But it’s not – far from it. What the restaurant has provided is one of the most extraordinary meals I’ve had in months, whether in Bath or way outside of it.
So I begin to see, even from the perspective of one visit, what Ollie means when he says: “It sounds terribly smug, I suppose, and this is a very subjective thing, but I'd like us to be the best restaurant in Bath.”