January 25 2018

Pig Guide review: Raphael

For a city that prides itself on teashops that have been here since 1482, Bathonians have taken well to embracing change of late. We’ve had to, really; even a handful of allegedly iron-clad chains have melted into liquidation in the past couple of weeks, while new restaurants, bars and cafes – including a healthy dollop of lively independent ventures – are opening at lightening speed. This is particularly the case in and around Saw Close, which is undergoing a real “blink and you miss the changes” transformation as the developers run to catch up with their promise of all works being finished by the spring. But right here, right now, we’re sorta looking back as we look forward… and one restaurant on Saw Close is proving that one of the city’s longest-standing institutions is more than capable of kicking the new kids on the Saw Close block to the kerb and showing them all how it’s really done.

Raphael has shrewdly clad the iron fist of change and vision in a lovely vintage velvet glove – it’s not trying to be cutting edge, it isn’t flash, it’s just… lovely. From the moment you step through the door into this gorgeous little European bistro, you’re enveloped in a warm fug of subtly glamorous bonhomie: soft music and candle light, supremely welcoming staff who cleverly make you feel like a million dollars without being over-fussy about it, Parisian bistro-style furniture, banquettes (you should know by now how much we love banquettes) – it’s sort of like our own little Bath version of Chez Paul, sans the snooty attitude.

On the food front (and I urge you to have a Kir Royale while you’re browsing – it just seems to suit the whole vibe exceptionally well, somehow,) the three big menu mantras are sourcing, supply and seasonality; local market forces dictate the selection on offer, just as the current market demands. It took us a while to make our choices, not because the the range is huge (in fact, it’s reassuringly compact), but because the combinations are compelling. For starters, I eventually settled on an elegant shellfish casserole that was described as “small” (it isn’t) – a luscious melange of all manner of very, very fresh fish and seafood including plump prawns and very moist mussels poached in a proper fish stock and accompanied by – in a neat twist on the trad-French classic fish soup – a lively roasted chilli and red pepper rouille and a succulent garlic and parsley roll in place of croutons. Mr Pig, meanwhile, went for scallops scattered hither and thither with crispy Serrano ham and resting on little pillows of buttery spinach, accompanied by a jug of creamy pumpkin and parmesan froth that may have been better (although probably way too over-pretentiously) described as a “gentle wave.” Both starters were perfect in execution, and either could have been a substantial stand-alone lunch. But hey, it was dinner time…

For mains, we eschewed the fabulous fresh fish dishes on the specials board in favour of soft slivers of perfectly pink calves liver with velvety mash, a happy heap of skinny, succulent green beans and a beautifully-balanced caramelised onion, wholegrain mustard and sage cream sauce (for me), and a super-rich combination of the most flavoursome fillet steak I’ve encountered in a long time partnered by a luxurious truffle oil-infused pomme purée, heaps of roast vegetables, a deeply umami mushroom/smoked lardon tag team and complex, sweet-but-peppery Madeira sauce for Mr Pig. Upholding the promise of great things that our starters had already prepared us for, both dishes were faultless, the superstar ingredients of each (the calves’ liver; the superb steak) championed by an exceedingly well thought-out roll call of textures and flavours.

As tempting as desserts at Raphael are (I will be returning for the Iced Banana Parfait,) I couldn’t go there – as we’ve established, portions are generous, to say the least. Mr Pig, however, couldn’t say no to the Cranachan trifle: a neat little homage to Burns Night featuring almond and oatmeal crumble, raspberry jelly and whiskey and vanilla cream. The chef here is so proud of his homemade ice cream that he sneaked a little quenelle of his cinnamon creation on to the side of the trifle too, and I’m very glad he did… if he puts more of the same on the side of my Iced Banana Parfait next time I’m in, I’ll be a very happy little piggy indeed.

But having said that, I’m a very happy little piggy indeed with Raphael right here, right now. The times, the landscape and the tempo of Saw Close may indeed all be a’changin’, but Raphael keeps calm and carries on doing great things despite the faddish flux going on around it.

The small print: for three courses from the a la carte menu plus wine from an excellent list, expect to pay circa £100 for two people. Set lunch: 2-courses/£16; Pre-theatre: 2-courses/£19.50. For menu updates and news, follow Raphael on Twitter @BathRaphael

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