When Bacchus first opened its doors a couple of years ago the strapline 'fine dining in trainers' was bandied around rather more than was necessary. An El Bulli chef turning out cutting edge cuisine in a converted pub at the scarier end of Shoreditch was certainly a novelty, though, and few who went there came away in any doubt that the food was pretty special. By time the decision was announced to close it down a couple of weeks ago the general consensus was that chef Nuno Mendes was at the top of his game, and was dishing up food of a creative style simply unavailable anywhere else in the capital. But alas the rather extreme location did for Bacchus in the end, and the management took the pragmatic decision to find a more suitable (central) outlet for Nuno's cooking – a new place is slated to open next year – while at the same time reinventing the Hoxton Street site as a classy gastropub. Almost overnight Bacchus Pub and Kitchen was born.
And first impressions are good. We were the only table last Wednesday for most of the night, which was a shame but it meant we were very well looked after. The short menu offered little choice, with just five starters and five mains, but all of them bowed to the rightly voguish gods of seasonality and provenance. Inevitably, the short list meant Hobson's choice for the vegetarian member of the party, which, given the number of young trendies in the area, could be a bit of a limitation.
Our starters were soup (broccoli and Stilton), which was disappointingly less than piping hot, and a lovely robust salad of ham hock and broad beans. Mains were sole with capers and shrimp, which was pronounced perfect, the inevitable wild mushroom creation (here with crispy polenta) which was too intense for its own good (and was graciously left off the bill) and chunky pork chops with cabbage, bacon and black pudding. No prizes for guessing I had that one. Top quality pork (ingredients are clearly of the highest standard here), and a good, simple rustic dish. "D for presentation," was muttered at this point but I thought that a bit harsh: in any case, unlike his predecessor in the Bacchus kitchen, the new chef (from the well regarded Pig's Ear) has no real need to worry about such niceties.
I went back for lunch yesterday and the food was better. None of the minor quibbles from last week and some clear improvements too. A starter of two small lamb cutlets, a disk of exceptionally well seasoned globe artichoke heart and tomato confit was absolutely perfect for a typically chill August day. Smoked mackerel and beetroot salad and crab on toast both look brilliant and was polished off in no time. This time I had the sole and it was very good, slightly erring on the side of underdone but far rather that than the alternative. The others had the pork chop and this looked to have stepped up a notch since last week: while I could forgive the previous version for being slightly overdone by dint of its sheer flavour, these two were juicy, succulent and terrific. It's not often you can smugly recommend a dish you've had before and then get full-blown food envy when you see what comes out of the kitchen. If the fish hadn't been so good - a massively generous slick of buttery shrimps and capers helped here - blood may have been spilt...
All in all, then, a solid start to the new regime. I gather weekends have been busy with lots of walk-ins (an interesting new phenomenon and change of pace for Bacchus), so it seems likely that the midweek trade will pick up too. I'll be doing my bit by organising a few more work lunches there over the coming weeks and months. At two courses for a tenner, incidentally, it's great value.
Amazing to think three weeks ago I had a meal at Bacchus that involved a gelid sphere of onion soup; now the only jelly you're likely to find is on top of a slab or brawn. Or possibly with some ice cream. The wholesale switch to an entirely different style of cooking is an extraordinary move for any restaurant, but then Bacchus was never any ordinary restaurant.
Bacchus Pub and Kitchen, 177 Hoxton Street N1 6PJ 020 7613 0477