Sonny Stores, Bristol: ‘They get things absolutely right’ – restaurant review

Sonny Stores, 47 Raleigh Road, Bristol BS3 1QS (0117 966 0821). Starters £4-£9, mains £13-£19, dessert £ 6, wines from £18

There is no glittering river running down the middle of Raleigh Road, in Bristol’s Southville district. There are no Arctic snowfields of white linen dressing the tables. The dining room is not polluted by braying parties of media plutocrats of a sort that might make even the most ardent pacifist think ugly, violent thoughts. As a result of these things, the prices will not quite make you wince, like someone has poked a vinegar-dipped finger into a recently incurred wound. Or to put it another way, no one would look at the humble, whitewashed space housing Sonny Stores, on a corner in residential Bristol, and mistake it for the famed River Café. Until the food starts arriving. Poi: oh my. Gosh. And thank you.

The comparison is not overly contrived. The chef, Pegs Quinn, spent five years cooking at the River Café in Hammersmith. He learned how to make the silkiest of pastas. He learned the supple, subtle ways of the wood-fired oven. Bristolians who care about their dinner, and the city’s thrilling independent restaurant sector suggests they are many, should give thanks for what he learned there. All of it, and more besides, is now here.

After his stint by the Thames, Quinn brought those pasta skills to Bristol, cooking first at Bianchi’s and then at its sister restaurant Pasta Ripiena. During lockdown, Quinn and his wife Mary Glynn ran a sourdough pizza company from home. Last year they took over this corner site and turned it into an Italian deli with a few tables. They called it Sonny Stores after their son. Now it is solely a restaurant with a blackboard menu that changes throughout the week, space for 16 inside and a covered deck outside for a few more.

It is a sunlit spot of big picture windows framing people leaning in eagerly over plates of food, amid the solemn silence of so many closed front doors. I find myself wondering whether those who live across the road are irritated by the tides of chatter that must sometimes rise towards them, or are overjoyed by the brilliant eating opportunities now on their doorstep. I hope it’s the latter.

We start with a plate of silvery-backed and salted Calabrian anchovies, swimming in the best peppery olive oil, a little acidity and sprinkled with dried oregano. Our waiter tells us she filleted them herself just before service. I appreciate the detail. I take a photo and afterwards thumb it on my phone. The plate reminds me of those oil paintings capturing the essence of the good things in life through simplicity, something perhaps by Euan Uglow o Ffiona Lewis. (Do look them up.)

These are not tiddler anchovies, those brown stripes on a plate coyly curled in on themselves, apologetically. These are butch, muscular specimens. They are the Schwarzeneggers of the anchovy world, from the period when Arnie was in his posing pouch down on Muscle Beach, pulling all the shapes and loving himself. They come with Jenga hunks of thick and still warm toasted bread. Rip off the crusts. Add a fat hit of savoury saltiness. All is so very good. A bowl of crisp little gem leaves becomes so much more than just a side salad via the addition of oily and salty roasted marcona almonds, slivers of finely sliced Amalfi lemon and a blizzard of freshly grated parmesan. This salad isn’t just dressed, it is catwalk-styled and accessorised. It’s a star turn for £9.

Clearly the kitchen isn’t merely unafraid of big flavours. It’s thrilled by them. A pearly piece of monkfish, bronzed at its leading edges, comes with roasted fennel and the sweet explosions of datterini tomatoes, their skins blistered and blackened. Across the top is an anchovy pesto. When the plate is cleared, which it quickly is, there’s a mess of juices crying out for the rest of the bread. Spaghetti with bite and slurp comes piled with finely chopped mussels and tomatoes cooked down in white wine, which leaves its own powerhouse of moppage. These dishes cost £19 and £13 respectively. It’s a very fair price for stacked platefuls.

The kitchen’s origins in pizza-making are still represented. The £15 price tag feels chunky for the bianco, made with béchamel and prosciutto and a fennel pesto, but then it arrives. It’s a chunky bit of pizza. The sourdough crust is bubbled and blistered, and provides yet more bread options for sauces that may have been left behind, but which must not remain so. A bottle of gavi di gavi from a short list with real choice below £30 stands up well to all this overt muscularity.

And now I am babbling like a love-struck teen, but it is all so very babble-worthy. Usually with menus this punchy, the ball is dropped somewhere. But no, here comes dessert, and the balls are all where they need to be. There’s an immaculate Amalfi lemon tart with a crisp biscuity shell and the requisite zing. There is a smooth, soothing, pillow of tiramisu. Best of all, there’s a crisp-chewy meringue with poached white peaches and dollops of crème fraîche. It is a dessert of pure sunlight.

On the way back from the loo I come across our waiter who is discussing a matter of great import with Quinn, through the hatch into his kitchen. She turns to me. “How do you spell meringue?” I laugh and say, "Bene, I suppose I have to be useful for something.” I give her the spelling and then tell Quinn his meringue really was perfect, however they might spell it. Meringues are one of those things that are easy to do badly, but hard to get absolutely right. They get things absolutely right here at Sonny Stores. Let me record my gratitude then, to the Bristol-based food writer and restaurant maven Mark Taylor for pointing me in its direction.

I leave with a surge of jealously. Behind all the surrounding front doors are people who can pop over the road for a plate or two here any time they like, funds allowing. Sicuro, we all need convenience shops, but why not convenience restaurants? Why not this convenience restaurant? I shouldn’t be surprised it’s here, ovviamente. This is Bristol where they have nailed the business of the small but perfectly formed independent. No grandiose, surging rivers. No acres of linen. No plutocrats. Just great food, done really well.

The pandemic has been a driver of innovation in the hospitality business and it’s clear some of those innovations will continue as restrictions are lifted. Lake District chef Simon Rogan has announced a relaunch of his seasonal three-course-meal kit business, in collaboration with the company behind Lakes Cottage Holidays. One of the £45-a-head menus for August, available across much of Britain, includes stuffed shoulder of Herdwick lamb with grilled courgette and wild garlic, and chamomile sponge cake with gooseberry and sheep’s yoghurt. Other businesses continuing the meal kit model in the English northwest are the boutique hotel Northcote at Langho, and chef Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros group. Visit simonroganathome.co.uk.

The Clink charity, which runs restaurants and catering businesses inside prisons to provide training, qualifications and experience to inmates, has received a chunky commitment of £6m over three years from the Julia and Hans Rausing Trust. Clink, which currently has 14 projects in prisons, will now be able to expand that to 70 prisons, enabling 2,000 men and women to achieve qualifications prior to release, which helps to reduce reoffending. A theclinkcharity.org.

Hot on the tail of Deliveroo announcing that orders were up 94% in the second quarter of 2021, come numbers from rival Just Eat. In the first half of 2021 their orders were up a staggering 733% on the same period in 2020.

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

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