Saturday’s dinner took place outdoors under tarpaulin and with the rain thumping down on a tiny courtyard in Bristol, where, at a romantic table for two, we enjoyed that specific British genre of alfresco dining that requires a bobble hat. Littlefrench in Westbury Park – it’s little, it’s French – has no control over the weather, of course, and I’m just ecstatic to see the place open in whatever form.
Reports of the restaurant scene creeping back to anything remotely normal are vastly exaggerated. In my bio-pic, summer 2020 will be a montage of my forlorn face on many, many wild goose chases, closed signs, dashed hopes and a closing shot in which I snivel and eat an M&S nutty salad on a random doorstep. Don’t set off anywhere until you’ve heard a voice on a phone confirming that human life is present; but then, if they’re open, they’ll probably be busy, stressed out and unable to answer the phone.
The struggle and disappointment, however – and, yes, I am still being a restaurant critic – makes moments like dinner at Littlefrench all the more glorious. Even if we aren’t allowed into the pretty, elegant restaurant itself, because the stipulations of re-opening require a one-way system and a hand-sanitisation unit, which has meant Freddy and Nessa Bird have set up shop round the back. Such concerns are all smoothed over by good hospitality, and there’s that in heaps at Littlefrench, where they put things right with a French 75 (gin, champagne, lemon juice) and a prettily plated volley of fat roast queen scallops, presented in their shells and swimming in a heroically good sauternes butter. “This is why people come out to eat, despite everything,” I said to Charles as those scallops arrived. We were surrounded by stoic diners wearing walking jackets over going-out garb and sipping boulevardiers that transformed Bristol into Biarritz via the power of deftly mixed booze.
We’d started with a plate of excellent, crisp, peppery radishes, which I ate like a half-starved Flemish Giant rabbit. The Provençal-style anchoïade dip that came with them was exactly as it should be: a gloriously brutal blend of white-wine vinegar, olive oil, anchovies and garlic. Then fresh goat’s curd with just-podded and barely even blanched peas and a pile of confit’d new-season garlic on toasted sourdough.
Littlefrench brims with a sense of largesse that I’ve not felt for months. Rare onglet arrives in a red wine jus packed with melted shallots and alongside a gargantuan heap of crisp, salty fries: this is steak frîtes elevated way past pub grub level. Then a whole turbot, a fearsome challenge, with tartare hollandaise and soft, buttered Cornish earlies spuds with wilted spinach. I cheered to see my favourite side on the menu – green beans with hazelnuts – which will forever remind me of Little Owl in Manhattan, which I’m chuffed to see is also upright again and keeping on keeping on.
I’d arrived at Littlefrench rather hungry, having left London in a rush and there being no catering on the train, no open coffee shop at Temple Meads station, no biscuits with the hotel tea, no room service, a long queue outside the nearby Co-op, and so on and so forth. Tiny, mundane, ever-present hiccups in normal life mean you never quite forget this is where we are now; things are not the same, and perhaps they never will be again. Abundance and the luxury of everything-right-now has halted and been replaced by a long search for a working public loo and being overjoyed when they turn on the latte machine at WHSmith.
I shall therefore remember that, after a very famished day, Littlefrench served me a prune and armagnac tart with which I ordered a glass of Cornish Mena Hweg sweet wine, kicked off my heels under the table and felt very grateful indeed. It was more cake than tart, because to my mind a tart is streamlined and even abstemious, whereas this was laden with chewy, tipsy prunes, would have fed three Gallic sailors, and came swimming in a heavenly, drunken crème anglaise. That’s just posh for custard, true, but if you call it crème anglaise, it means you can drink it from a jug out of the fridge and feel like Juliette Binoche. Littlefrench is a similar joy. It didn’t plan to be an open-air canteen operating in a downpour, but honestly, ça ne fait rien.