I first met Martin Blunos in 1998, in the clearance section of Nisbetts (a catering equipment supplier on the outskirts of Bristol). I stood in awe as I watched a 2Michelin starred chef holding a terrine, rotating it, visualising how he was going to utilise the bargain. I tentatively approached and introduced myself, I was working at a 3rosette hotel in Cheltenham as Senior Sous chef, but I’d be dining at Lettonie the following week, as Blunos celebrated 10years of trading.
Fast forward 11years and there was yet another chance meeting. I was on assignment at a hotel in South Wales, which was relaunching. They’d got a new Head chef, a Chef de Partie and I rocked up to do the pastry. Blunos was brought in as a consultant, and a string to the PR machine’s bow.
The initial encounter went on the lines of:
Blunos: What you making chef?
Me: Milk ice cream in the machine, scones for afternoon tea & just lining a pastry case for the lemon tart.
Blunos: Lemon tart? It’ll split.
Me: Really?!? It’ll be the best lemon tart you’ve ever had.
At the end of service there was a slice left, I plated it up with a ball of the crème brûlée ice cream, placed it next to Blunos and returned to the pastry. Within moments Blunos was down to see me with tart & ice cream entangled in his trademark moustache.
It’s bloody lovely that is.
I’d proved my worth & skill where it mattered, on the plate.
Since those days Blunos has been a culinary journey man; TV cooking shows, cookery demos, consultancy and so the list goes on. Latterly his name was above the door at Seaham Hall, in the North East, which was bought by Seasons Holidays for less than £5million in 2012 after the collapse of Von Essen.
Now Blunos seems settled in his home town of Bath and at the stoves of another Seasons Holidays property. His new eponymous restaurant occupies former office space under the County Hotel, and is only accessible from the rear of the building. Although rightly proud of his achievements at Lettonie, Blinis & The Lygon Arms, Blunos is quick to point out that his latest baby is a departure from the starched environments of the past.
There is a large chilled display in the semi open kitchen where customers can see the days catch, brought in from day boats at Plymouth & Looe. What does become apparent is the confidence the kitchen has, the aspiration of a simple thing done well, which is reflected in the menu. There is a choice of amongst other things of 2 oyster dishes, a ½ pint of prawns and kipper filleted sardines with Mediterranean vegetables for starters, and such delights as Blunos lobster, beer battered fish & whole crab for mains.
Blunos himself delivered the nibbles while we were perusing the menus, briefly explaining each one then graciously excusing himself to attend to another table. Seasonal food has always been at the core of Blunos’ food and tonight was no exception. Hummus made from the last of the summer’s broad beans & dirty radishes.
The use of edible soil for the dirty radishes takes what could have been rather mundane crudites and adds a twist, it’s the context in which such touches should be used, rather than doing it for doing its sake.
In keeping with the informal affair, bread is a somewhat DIY event. A Blunos branded bread knife accompanies a warm loaf, whipped butter and an empty ramekin (for the balsamic vinegar & extra virgin olive oil, which is already on the table). It is a great idea, coupled with top class execution. The loaf was beautifully crafted, great crust & that slight tinge of a sourdough starter ferment, which just adds a further dimension & character to bread.
An additional course
Blunos very kindly sent some extra courses during my visit. Although we weren’t charged for them I’ve added them to the post because I think that it better demonstrates a fuller picture of what is on offer.
Sadly the picture hasn’t done this dish justice. It is the type of dish you can imagine eating in a roadside cafe in Provence. From the school of ‘A simple thing done well’, the kitchen were right on the money. A deft touch of a singular deep fried shallot ring & light smattering of basil oil, coupled with the classic flavours of Aubergine, Courgettes & Peppers, what wasn’t there to like?
Mrs Hermes declared her Crab tortellini a triumph; not too rich, well balanced and with the emphasis on the sweet white meat. My Scallops baked in their shell was also very good, and it makes you wonder why we don’t see more of this sort of thing. The simplicity of Scallops sealed in a shell with some white wine, thinly sliced shallots & a knob of butter. Cooked in a hot oven, in a well practiced routine, yielded the white flesh which was so succulent and bang on the money.
An additional course
Also on the menu the night we dined was Langoustine raviolo.
Langoustine & tomatoes, again another classic flavour combination from the kitchen team. I do have to say though, these ravioli were made with the plumpest, juiciest prawns I’ve had in a long time, which just reinforces the Blunos ethos about sourcing & seasonality.
Mrs Hermes was suffering a fish overload at this point and opted for 9oz Fillet steak, with all the trimmings. At £34 there’s no denying it’s an extravagance on our part, but one that was clearly worth it. The man himself later explained to us that he believed in treating steaks like this to more classical methods of cookery, none of this bunging it in a waterbath, no. It was nutured, basted and rested in the pan, where constant checking and touching keeps the chef in control. Again, the 35+ years of experience that Blunos has was so evident; the meat could have been cut with the back of the knife, such was its tenderness.
Meanwhile, my Monkfish tails had seen some intense heat on a grill. The smokiness just added an extra dimension to the South of France theme running through the dish. In a lesser chef’s hands intense grilling is a recipe for disaster, all too often the meat or fish is over cooked & dried out, or cremated & undercooked in the middle. But yet again the kitchen team judged it just right.
Yet more evidence that Blunos is moving away from the formal arena of starched fine dining is how the condiments are delivered for chips. This is just indicative of the man’s humour, and how he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Some chefs are synonymous with certain dishes; think Pierre Koffmann & Pig’s trotters and Heston Blumenthal & Snail porridge. Ask any chef of a certain age about Martin Blunos and they’ll reply
Egg & Soldiers
A dish which has stood the test of time, since its inception one Valentine’s day at Lettonie, it’s a modern day classic.
A real chicken’s egg has its top removed, sterilised & then filled with Mango purée and a lightened crème pâtissière, topped with more mango purée (to give the look of the yolk). The toast soldiers are cocoa dusted shortbread fingers & the salt & cracked black pepper are sugar & grated chocolate respectively. It still to this day gets people talking.
At this point we were glad that kitchen has established a nice pace, what was meant to be a casual 3courses turned into a tasting menu at over 3hours, but what a way to spend 3hours. Again, desserts followed the pattern established of good sourcing and seasonality. The excellent Jersey curd was so in tune with the Summer truffles & Honey that it was hard to fault.
In conclusion – The nuts & bolts of it
Blunos is a great addition to the already bustling dining scene in Bath, its casual attitude serving great food will make it a ‘must visit’ destination in the coming months. The real upside is, that for the first time in a long time you can seethe personality of the chef shining through. Chef Blunos is a funny, relaxed, charming, personable guy, and the Blunos restaurant is him all over. I’m sure that for all his pedigree with Lettonie & Michelin, sometimes, just sometimes, it can become a millstone around his neck. Blunos is as far removed from those heady days, but relies on the same core values.
As we sat there reflecting on the meal we’d just eaten, both my wife and I said how both our parents would really like to dine at Blunos. The theater of Martin occasionally working the room and the ‘Egg & Soldiers’ makes for such a sociable dining experience. If that isn’t a recommendation then I don’t know what is.
The total bill was £166 including two £35 bottles of TinPot Hut Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. That said, it also includes a £34 Fillet of Beef main course. If you take into account these extras dining at Blunos is very reasonable.
If there are 4 or more of you, ask for the table in the raised area in the booth.
Clearly the IT company supplying their services to Blunos & Seasons Holidays aren’t the best, so use the links I’ve provided below on the map, not Google.
The additional courses of Sardines & Langoustines were unsolicited non-charged extra courses. They’ve been included in the post to highlight other dishes which are available. They in no way influence the outcome of the review.