Have you ever seen one of those YouTube videos of kids being surprised by their parents with trips to Disney Land? And the kids just get totally overwhelmed by being too happy too quickly and they burst into tears because they don’t know what else to do? That pretty much sums up the Box-E experience for me. I’ve done this on occasion before where I enjoy something so much that I get increasingly distressed throughout because I know that the nice thing is coming to an end and I can’t imagine going back to that cold, bleak time before the nice thing started.
But I’m starting at the end, let’s go back to the beginning…
It’s bank holiday Friday and the hottest day of the year so far. Bristol is blooming in the heatwave, with happy crowds gathering at the harbourside to drink in the sunshine. I mean obviously we’re not in the sunshine, Mr TGE and I are so northern European we’re practically blue skinned, so we find shade, but most people are out and about.
Another reason for the bustling crowds of course is the opening of Cargo 2 – the larger second section of the Wapping Wharf development boasting restaurants, shops and even a yoga studio. It’s wonderfully busy with free Greek Souvlakis being handed out from The Athenian and tasters galore from The Bristol Cheesemonger, Cargo Catina and Gopal’s Curry shack. Cargo 2 is an exciting addition to the already popular Cargo 1 and offers an incredible amount of choice – Tare, Spuntino and The Pickle Brisket are top of my to do list right now. But we’re here for something particularly special and go up to the top level of Cargo 1 to take our seats at Box-E’s Kitchen Table.
Box-E is a small but perfectly formed 14 seat cargo restaurant run by Tess and Elliott Lidstone, offering a short menu of seasonal food. As it’s such a beautiful day diners have spilled out onto the decking outside, glasses of delicate rosé being delivered as we arrive. We’re booked in for the full tasting menu with matching wine flight at the 4 seater kitchen table. The 4 seats run along one side of the kitchen, we’re so close that I can feel the heat from the oven. Luckily a large fan has been placed at the end of the table and is pointed directly at us. “We didn’t have a fan yesterday”, Elliott explains, looking slightly haunted by the memory, “it’s much better with the fan”. I’ve never been this close to the action in a busy restaurant at all and it’s fascinating to see how the tiny kitchen functions.
Elliott pours us a chilled glass of prosecco once we’re settled. “A glass of prosecco for you to start with” (which incidentally is my favourite way to start anything) “because… well why not?”. Why not indeed we agree and, as we clink glasses we’re presented with fresh warm bread and whipped butter sprinkled with seaweed. The butter is divine, I love the salty seaweed flavour and we slather it across the bread. The restaurant quickly fills up but service is friendly and efficient, nobody is rushed. Elliott is casually chatting away to us, totally relaxed and at ease, as if he’s not cooking a dozen different dishes at the same time with precision an army sergeant would be proud of.
Whipped butter with seaweed
We move onto the first course, local smoked haddock with heritage beetroot, radishes and dill. Like a tiny jewellery box each component of the dish shines, it is a riot of colour and taste. The dill is sweet against the fish, it’s a delicately balanced dish and is pure summer. Mr TGE and I share grins, we’re going to like this…
Next up is asparagus in wild garlic butter with bottarga. It is to die for, the rich garlic butter perfect against the fresh savoury asparagus. The bottarga is a new one for me and Elliott explains that it’s grey mullet roe which has been salted, pressed and dried before being grated over the top of the dish. It’s an intense briny, salty flavour that I’ve not experienced before but it’s delicious. It’s one of the best dishes of the night. We wash it down with a golden glass of a Spanish wine, Pampaneo Airen. On its own I have to admit I don’t particularly like it but with the food it’s a revelation, bringing out the slight bitterness of the bottarga.
Whilst we’ve been eating there’s one dish in particular that I’ve noticed Elliott preparing that’s really caught my eye. I’m aware that I’m peering over into his kitchen watching wide eyed like a hungry cat but Elliott is either too focused on his cooking or just too polite to say anything. Mr TGE digs me in the ribs, “Stop staring at the cheese!” I don’t break eye contact with the cheese which is currently being expertly blow torched. “I can’t” I whisper back, “I think this cheese might be for us!” And it is! We are presented with a happy little mound of jersey royal potatoes and wild garlic which is coated in an oozing layer of stinking bishop cheese (which I believe was courtesy of The Bristol Cheesemonger). It’s decadent and comforting and yet not too heavy, even on such a warm evening. The slightly distressed feeling is already beginning I can tell… at some point, I’m not going to be in here eating this cheese and I can’t guarantee what I’ll do… Mr TGE can clearly tell this too as he hastily refills my water and distracts me with people watching. Maybe Elliott can sense it too as we’re all presented with an additional mini course, a teaspoon taster of raw chopped fillet of beef with lime, chili and sesame. The beef is achingly soft and the lime lifts everything, again giving it that summer edge. I could eat this by the bowlful and when I go back I plan to.
We’re heading towards the big hitters of the tasting menu, the fish and meat courses, and after a short break we’re ready for it. Again, I’ve been watching the cooking process and I know the fish course is going to be good, you can’t cover something in that much butter and not like it. The dish arrives, a thick slice of hake sitting on top of a bed of cous cous with harissa and monks beard. The hake is crisp and golden on top while the succulent white flesh is moist and soft. The monks beard (which I thought was samphire) adds a delicate hint of saltiness and we’re lucky we’re within the very short period that it’s in season. The aromatic harissa adds a hint to the dish and again I’m licking the plate clean. One of my favourite wines of the night is served alongside this dish, a beautifully delicate and fragrant rosé.
And now we’re onto the main event – the meat course. And what a meat course it is. Seared onglet steak is served blushing pink on the inside, alongside chard and borlotti beans. Onglet can often be overlooked as a cut which is a shame as it has a real depth of flavour, and served rare is fabulously tender. The accompanying jus is a delight, again rich and full of flavour to match the beef. The only thing which doesn’t work for me is the borlotti beans… it’s no fault of the kitchen, just personal preference on my part. I never have liked them unfortunately, even these plump and lovingly cooked little beans. Mr TGE is thrilled as that means double beans for him. He kindly asks if I also need help with my wine, a beautiful and French red. I absolutely do not need help with this and in fact would actually have gone for a little bit more if possible – it’s a wonder!
The evening rolls to a satisfying close with the cheese course followed by an accidental double pudding. The only mistake Elliott makes the entire evening is mistakenly making one too many of his chocolate desserts – a chocolate mousse with English strawberries and elderflower. He ponders it for a moment before shrugging and turning to the four of us at the kitchen table, we sit up like eager puppies, eyes fixed on the chocolate. “Would you like to try…” Elliott begins, but we’ve already picked up our spoons. Yes, we would very much like to try the lovely chocolate thing please. And it is lovely. The chocolate is smooth and rich, the strawberries plump and ripe. It’s decadent and I love it.
Elliot wisely gives us a few minutes before the final dish of the night, a smooth and creamy vanilla panna cotta also served with a tumble of English strawberries. It’s an exceptional end to an exceptional meal. I am totally replete and relaxed. The heat has faded from the day and it’s time to wander home in the warm night air.
Box-E is not just fine dining, it’s food made with passion and love in an environment that’s cosy and friendly. They want you to enjoy the delightful food they’ve lovingly crafted, and I for one do.