It was my daughter’s idea to take her and her boyfriend to “SouKitchen” – as it likes to be known. Alas the website seems to have been deconstructed to a fairly minimal affair, giving only the contact details of their two Bristol restaurants and excluding the newly revised menu, but then you have me to describe it!
In fact you will already have guessed this is the Bristolian take on the cuisine of the Levantine and eastern Mediterranean, with a few nods to other locations along the way – daughter’s Apple Mojito seems to have at least one foot in Mexico, but then food and drink is truly a global commodity these days.
There was slight confusion over which of the two I had booked. I thought it was Clifton, handy for where I was staying and Lindsey lives, but turns out it was the other restaurant in Bedminster, a relatively short drive across the bay. I say short, but I missed a turning and therefore had the pleasure of driving under the Clifton Suspension Bridge at night en route, and still arrived on time for our booking.
From the outside Souk Kitchen appears minimal and laid back. The interior is laid back but equipped with a certain charm in its ambience: low lighting, a blackboard wall for specials and various murals and artefacts adorning other walls. There is also an open kitchen, for which many thanks – no secrets.
We were served by a veteran grey-haired sad-faced waiter, whose blue reading glasses unclipped at the front, presumably held together by magnets – which reminded me slightly of front-opening bras! For all his melancholic appearance, he and his colleagues were admirably professional throughout, serving with a minimum of fuss and, impressively, without writing down our orders. That’s what 20 years on the front line does for you.
Lindsey was hugely impressed by the apple mojito mentioned above. Jeff and I sampled Casablanca beer, since it’s what you do in a north African restaurant. Not sure if it’s what they drink in Rick’s American Café, but it proved a pretty decent lager-type brew (Stop Press! Adam and I recently had the same beer in Marrakech!)
On to the menu: we chose starters of pork souvlaki with tzatziki (Greek influence?), halloumi in vine leaves with orange blossom honey (ditto), and babaganoush topped with crispy lamb, walnuts and pomegranates (definitely Levantine), plus a plate of Lebanese flatbread to share.
What immediately struck me was the star quality exhibited on all three starters. Nothing perfunctory, all minor gems of their kind, beautifully dressed and flavoursome. You’ve had halloumi and felt like it was chewing rubber? Not this halloumi – it melted in the mouth. Put off by aubergine? Don’t be – the babaganoush was as light and frothy a vegetable dip as you could hope to find, subtle but well spiced. Admittedly I didn’t try the souvlaki, but it looked tasty and all three plates ended up empty and cleaned of the last vestiges of grub.
Would the mains match? I chose from the specials board: chargrilled lamb chops, fried potatoes, muhmmara, fennel, preserved lemon and rocket salad, and I doubt I could have chosen better. The chops had the gloriously singed exterior from quality charcoal grilling, but were perfectly pink in the centre – I could not have cooked them better myself, which is praise indeed! The fried potatoes were closer to sautéed new spuds in their skins, but the remaining components provided a vivacious tingle on the tastebuds – and I discovered that muhmmara is a hot pepper dip originally from Aleppo, Syria (currently, alas, a war zone.) This was a brilliant and vibrant dish, one deserving of praise and surely destined for a permanent spot on the menu.
It would be easy to stop there, but two more mains were selected by our party: chicken kebabs with courgette cacik, pilaf and harissa; and Ghalieh Mahi, which turns out to be a Southern Persian fish curry with coriander, fenugreek, tamarind and saffron rice – though what variety of fish is not stated. The latter proved another revelation, being unmistakably a curry in a dark green coriander sauce, highly aromatic, evidenced of fresh spices, and quite, quite different to the Indian and Thai traditions for spiced dishes. This dish was demolished by Lindsey, as was Jeff’s kebabs.
Jeff passed on the afters, Lindsey chose an apple tea (this was apparently an apple night for her), while I sampled an amazing rose and vanilla rice pudding topped by what amounted to an Iranian version of fresh fig compote. Lindsey tried this too and went into paroxysms of delight that such a mundane dish could be translated into such a rich and glorious tapestry of flavours.
Thus the three of us went out into the cool crisp evening fully satisfied. It’s not my normal style to praise restaurants to the skies, but for 74 quid we got in the nether parts of Bristol a meal that surprised and delighted, and was all the better for exceeding expectations.
Small wonder Souk Kitchen has built up a keen following, but thankfully resisted thus far the temptation to become a franchised chain or any such nonsense. It succeeds by virtue of attention to detail and love of the cultural traditions translated here to the plate – home cooking, Levant style. Expand the chain too far and the homely nature of the restaurant would be lost amid the lust for profits. As it is, we had an excellent meal for a fair price. I’d urge you to get to Bristol to try it out before something drastic changes, but while good food and customer welfare remain the top priority “SouKitchen” will continue to garner rave reviews, and rightly so.