July 4 2022

Pig Guide review: The Architect, Orange Grove

Have you ever looked properly at the former Empire Hotel building in the middle of Bath? Oh sure, you know the building I’m talking about: the grand, turn-of-the-(20th)-century former hotel that dominates Orange Grove. But have you ever considered the design of the roof?

Back in 1901, then-Bath City Architect Major Charles Edward Davis decided it was a good idea to use his design (commissioned by hotelier Alfred Holland) to highlight social class division and turned the building’s top layer into some kind of weird structural shorthand for Britain’s social class structure: a humble cottage for the lower class ‘working man’ on the left (where else?), a couple of plain houses in the middle for the middle classes (see what he did there?) and a castle tower on the corner to represent the upper class.

In one of his epic, 46-volume series of British county-by-county guides The Buildings of England (1951-74), Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the building as ‘a monstrosity and an unbelievably pompous piece of architecture’ – sorry Nik, but despite (or perhaps because of?) the roof bringing to mind the legendary,1966 Two Ronnies/John Cleese Class System sketch, I actually think that the big, frilly, 6-storey wedding cake-style structure is rather pretty.

What was never pretty about the Empire, though, was that fact that a rather unloved branch of the rather unloved British casual dining chain Garfunkel’s dominated the building’s elegant, expansive ground floor (the upper floors are given over to multiple layers of chi-chi apartments for those aged 50+) for around 20 years, subjecting innocent tourists who believed all the A-board guff about the restaurant claiming to have been serving ‘the very best of British food since 1979’ to the delights of floppy fish and chips, sickly chicken tikka masala and the infamous, soggy self-service salad bar, the constant ‘ping!’ of the microwave bank in the kitchen constantly interrupting the not-quite-loud-enough-to-hear-properly-but-just-about-loud-enough-to-annoy background music that always seemed to feature the Eagles, Carpenters and Alanis Morissette on a constant loop.

But still, when Garfunkel’s finally closed its doors for good circa 2019 and news of the possibility of new owners magpie-ing into the vacated nest started to circulate, complaints from residents and locals came in thick and fast… and B&NES council firmly refused a refurbishment planning application.

But that was then and this is now. The necessary planning permission was eventually duly granted (albeit with several conditions attached), and contemporary pub chain Brunning & Price opened the doors to The Architect in June 2022 – and really, only a chain with chain-style funding could ever have taken the site over; a site such as this (location; size; scale – phew!) is most definitely couldn’t be small, independent business territory, could it?

It’s been a long time coming (and indeed, a long time getting to the point in this review – sorry about that, couldn’t help meself), but The Architect most definitely had the right grand designs in mind when it came to appealing to Bathonians and tourists alike. At last, the former Grand Hotel’s ground floor looks properly grand again, all high ceilings, polished wood and palm trees, and plush booths built into sensual, inviting curves, and beautifully-laid tables for small and large parties alike, supplemented by a stylish little alfresco terrace offering views of the Abbey. The bar area is shiny, gleaming and inviting, and the staff follow suit: warm welcomes, bright smiles, totally unforced friendliness… well done, B&P.

On the all-important food front, menus are divided into the categories that we’ve come to expect from a contempo-pub: Daily, Light Bites, Pudding, Children’s, Sunday, Brunch, Gluten Free and Sunday Gluten Free are all there, all present and actually, all very correct, as in there’s a solid emphasis on seasonality and sourcing that lifts us away from ‘just another contempo-pub menu list’ territory, while modern flourishes such as burnt lemon labneh with a falafel starter, sea purslane with a Hampshire chalk sea trout main and an enticing dish of coconut feta fritters served with herb risotto, asparagus and pickled shallots in amongst a well-considered vegetarian selection show a thoughtful imagination at play behind the scenes. Of course, the Classics haven’t been overlooked; you can, if you so wish, take the well-travelled soup/fish’n’chip/chocolate brownie route to satiation. But oh no, not us – not today, anyway.

If you’re visiting The Architect on a drinks’n’nibbles only basis, might I suggest that you nibble on the lamb fritters with herb emulsion? They’re very good indeed – just sayin’. For starters proper, a plate of Dorset air dried beef with tarragon polenta croutons, truffle mayonnaise and radish proved to be a well-balanced mega hit of super-savoury flavours, and offered robust contrast to my rather more delicate Devon crab salad (lots of crab, hoorah!) with brown crab mayonnaise on a dinky toasted crumpet; both very good indeed.

For Mr Pig’s main course, two massive, velvety slabs of slow-braised ox cheek served with a deeply umami combination of truffle mash, king oyster mushroom, shallot and cavolo nero; for me, a beautifully-cooked Chicken Milanese, its 1970s bistro reputation given a thorough makeover courtesy of garlic sage butter and goat’s curd, accompanied by a lively lemon green salad and earthy new potatoes; if you’re in the mood for a dish that looks backwards in order to look forward to right now, this is it.

We didn’t do puddings, thereby saving us, according to the menu, a total of 1819 calories between us (if you’re a proper Pig Guide stalker, you can work out what our choices would have been from that). We did, however, opt for excellent Espresso Martini nightcaps ‘cos there’s no calories printed on the drinks menu, which must mean that there’s negligible calorie content in drinks, right? And off we went into the Orange Grove night, Bath’s newest old watering hole revisited to very satisfactory results.

Pevsner might not have approved of the work of Bath’s former Grand Hotel’s grand designer but something tells me that, were he writing today, he’d most definitely recommend The Architect in his guide.

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