No. 1 Ship Street welcomes you as an instant regular, and indeed we could see any number of reasons to come back. It's not at all pretentious, just opulent, and because it's so peaceful still manages to feel understated.
Upstairs is a champagne and oyster bar, with polished copper tables and velveteen padded barstools you can almost sink into. They also serve tapas-style dishes. The dark purplish interior gives the place a retro feel in a very good way, as if it's accessing the best of what's now missing from dining out in our speedy wipe-clean eating culture: the sense of quiet luxury, friendliness, time and care taken. With its dark colours, it's almost unrecognisable as the former News Café.
The cocktail experience was lovely. The barman was relaxed and knowledgeable and after asking what we liked recommended a Mojito made with ginger beer and fresh chillis, which was delicious and bracing in all the right ways. Java Java was like a fresher Pina Colada, and very delicious, though my vote also went to the chilli Mojito. We reckoned one of those a day would see off all colds for the rest of winter. There's also a most enticing range of aged tequilas. Their blood orange margarita is on my wishlist for next time.
Downstairs, with its upmarket rustic French dining room atmosphere, the classic food is very good. My companion's starter of house terrine (game, on this occasion) was meaty and interesting, with a good texture and not too salty, with tiny cornichons and strands of purple pickled onion. Not usually a pickle person, she found these dainties offset the richer taste of the terrine without being overpowering, and the sourdough toast which accompanied it was textbook crisp on the outside and chewy within.
Steak tartare is hard to find outside France, so I've only eaten it in Paris before, where there seems to be a more universal love of the silkiness of raw meat. No. 1's Sirloin Tartare is adapted to the English palate, almost a ceviche with the stronger condiments of mustard and vinegar, and missing the sumptuous gloop of raw egg, though the meat was less finely minced so you still got the soft texture. I didn't have the accompanying rarebit (to make the dish gluten- and dairy-free) and I didn't feel a lack - it was utterly delicious and I would definitely order it again.
The English rosé veal shin with borlotti beans, fennel and parmesan croquettes was a supremely comforting dish, a rich stew with a marrow-filled bone to enhance it. The parmesan croquettes were a delicious food paradox: my companion felt there should have been more of these (there were three dinky ones) but they’re precisely the sort of food which gets less exquisitely delicious the more you eat of it, so we suspected the chef had actually got the proportions right.
The confit chicken brought out the sun and all the stars, with meat that melted in the mouth in exactly the way one hopes. It came with tons of peas and bacon (and a non-standard sauce, again for allergen reasons). It was delicious down to the last forkful, though I managed to restrain myself from licking the plate. Our server was absolutely right - I didn't need fries to go with it, but I'm so glad I ignored his advice (and my very last-minute request was accommodated gracefully and with seeming ease).
I defied the natural order and chose a Picpoul to accompany my food. The tartare didn't bring out its finest qualities, but it went well with the chicken, providing a sort of earthy bluntness like a velvet backdrop. There's a seemingly huge choice of wines by the glass, and tasters available to aid your choice. The price range is also wide, going up to several hundred for the priciest bottle of fizz.
Now, no one who has been so well fed should attempt to eat a portion of deep-fried custard, so I’ll say at the outset that it was a mistake to try. The custard was a little cloying with white chocolate, nicely tempered with a sharp purple berry sauce, but impossible to do justice to. I think the lesson is that deep fried puddings are for truly hungry people. The sorbet was more successful, and I gather is made by iScream in the Covered Market. I've never had such intense and natural peach flavour in a frozen dessert.
Being an independent venture, notable in amongst the recent influx of chains to the city, it's adaptable. Expect a slightly different approach in and out of term, perhaps. It would be a perfect place to be taken by parents, students take note. Their Sunday Lunch is also proving popular. And we're looking forward to the ultimate May Morning destination, if they can be persuaded to open the doors at dawn. With generously large portions, and a warm welcome without intrusive familiarity, this is a definite winner and we came away thinking (hoping!) we could get used to this.