Looking at Rain, Steam and Speed, J M W Turner’s magisterial allegory of the Great Western Railway, it is tempting to wonder how an artist of today might approach the gig.
Tracey Emin could make an authentically stomach-turning installation based on the state of the buffet car at the end of a long day.
Rachel Whiteread could cast an entire carriage in concrete, with minimal impact on the service’s punctuality stats. B
ristolian provocateur Banksy could surely be persuaded to emboss a pungent critique of the GWR’s new “hipster Mussolini” uniforms on to the wall of the Gents at Paddington, if the money was right.
Everyone’s a critique nowadays, of course. The 2015 reboot of First Great Western as the GWR, or rather “gWr” as in the old days, has not so far succeeded in recapturing the tremulous excitement of rail travel’s glorious infancy – but that doesn’t mean there is no romance to the routes it serves.
Psychogeographers have noted a straightish line of churches, most but not all dedicated to the archangel Michael or the Virgin Mary, running from Paddington to Penzance.
Passing through the chalk downs of Berkshire, the traveller sees several white horses, at least one of which is older than the Iliad. Glastonbury Tor is visible, for a few spiritually charged seconds, just outside Taunton.
Bristol has, for some years, had an unusually puissant food scene
The Bristol branch is less obviously rich in such arcana. Yet the view of the city as you chug into Temple Meads station is pretty magical: one of the best Gothic churches in Britain, St Mary Redcliffe; a candy-coloured terrace of houses leaning tipsily together on a high sandstone ridge to the south; the great iron train shed and the station house itself, bristling with battlements as if the Templars themselves still held the franchise. If you arrive from the west, you’ll get a glimpse of the Clifton Gorge and the suspension bridge that spans it, one of the seven wonders of the Industrial Revolution.
Bristol has, for some years, had an unusually puissant food scene. This is partly due to the usual indicators: a bit of cash swilling around, lots of students, property on the expensive side so the young professionals can’t afford a decent kitchen, etc. But there is also a certain perfumed hedonism in the air, a willingness to try things out. Maybe it’s all those ley lines.
Sky Kong Kong, for example, wouldn’t quite make sense anywhere else. It’s in an impeccably grim location, just off a roundabout, next to a Premier Inn, in a Sixties retail arcade straight out of an early David Cronenberg movie. The sign has seemingly been done by hand in those dry-wipe marker pens, perhaps in homage to Banksy.
The dining room’s utilitarian origins have been disguised with a theatrical eye, resulting in a certain ad hoc elegance – an old cast-iron planter filled with lemon-yellow forsythia, a massive dresser adorned with earthenware kimchi pots, serried ranks of pickled ginseng roots lurking in Kilner jars as if about to be reanimated by some Lovecraftian mad scientist, a chunk of coral on a stand for some reason.
It’s part retro brutalism, part festival chic, part magic-realist whimsy, as if a portal to Narnia had opened up in the disused offices of a certificated bailiff.
When we arrived there was just one long table, set with artfully mismatched crockery. They only have two sittings in the evening, so the latest you can rock up and expect to be fed is 8.30; and since the earliest we could get a Saver Return from Paddington was 6.45, it had been a slightly tense trip. But the server quickly put us at our ease; and (thank the stars) there’s no enforced jollity between diners.
It’s part retro brutalism, part festival chic, part magic-realist whimsy
SKK describes itself as an “organic Korean café”. They do bento boxes at lunch and a "bapsang", a more structured menu, which changes weekly, in the evening. Ours was cured salmon with fresh and pureéd fruit; roast mackerel with pickles and a dollop of gingered-up spinach; sliced rare roast beef with ground pork and udon noodles; and, for an extra £2.50, a chocolate moussey thing with berries, served in repurposed Gü ramekins – a bit of a hostage to fortune, this, given that your actual Gü ramekins, which everyone secretly quite likes, only cost £3 for two at Tesco.
SKK is less about the letter of authenticity than the spirit of improvisation
I’ve never been to Korea, though my partner has (“Lots of sea cucumber,” she muttered darkly). But it quickly became apparent that SKK is less about the letter of authenticity than the spirit of improvisation. One of the pickles was “burdock kimchi” – delicious, with a bitter edge beneath its fermented salty sweetness and chilli kick.
A Malaysian-style side of tiny crispy fish with sweet soy and goji berries was a happy marriage of crunch and squidge (plus a tinge of acidity, as in all the happiest marriages).
The soft, wriggly, starchy noodles worked perfectly with the Sunday-roast flavours of the accompanying meats. The mackerel (larger parties got sea bass) was simply done, but super-fresh. The salmon was plump and firm, curled into the shape of a bass clef, purple-edged from its beetroot cure. Everything was easy on the eye: vivid and colourful, presented with panache.
SKK feels more like a supper club that has stumbled on a permanent base than a restaurant in any conventional sense. It’s inflexible in terms of what you get to eat (though they do ask about special dietary needs) and when you get to eat it.
It has a distinctly amateurish air: amateurish, that is, in the old-fashioned sense of something done for love rather than money – the starting price for dinner is £12.50; corkage is £1.50 per person.
But eating there certainly had its pleasures; even if we didn’t talk to our neighbours, we found ourselves exchanging little smiles and glances from time to time, co-conspirators in a shared adventure.