Interview: Bilson Eleven is Glasgow’s most exciting new restaurant

Chef Nick Rietz (at the back) and his colleague Luche, at work in the kitchen.
Chef Nick Rietz (at the back) and his colleague Luche, at work in the kitchen.

Annfield Place is a charmimg row of 19th Century townhouses that runs parallel to Duke Street. It was part of Alexander Dennistoun’s original plan for the area and sits in a part of the East End that has a rich history but has seldom figured in Glasgow’s culinary highlights.

There’s Coia’s cafe, of course, which is something of a local institution. Then there’s new arrivals like Dennistoun Bar B Que and Redmond’s. Dennistoun even has Glasgow’s first cereal cafe. There’s been murmurs for a while that the Duke Street strip might emulate Argyle Street in Finnieston and become a trendy food destination.

If that does happen then the breakthrough could be led by Bilson Eleven which opened its doors at the end of November. It’s a small restaurant in the front room of what was once a dental surgery. There’s eight tables of two with a couple of fours.

Chef-owner Nick Rietz worked in Two Fat Ladies before setting out on his own. His menu is short but ambitious and intriguing, offering re-imagined versions of classic Scottish dishes prepared with real flair. Think chicken liver parfait, pork belly and salmon.

Neighbourhood restaurants should be ambitious. When there is a star in the kitchen then any eatery can aspire to higher things. Bilson Eleven serves up food that can compete with any of our leading restaurants. It’s arrival is exciting both for the addition of a new fine dining destination and for the example it sets for restaurants in other areas.

The focus is on quality and that shines through at every level.

We visited recently for a chat with chef-owner Nick Rietz and his wife Liz.

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What’s been your experience so far at the restaurant?

Nick: It was quite slow the first two weeks, you know, because we had to create something out of just a townhouse. It’s getting people to know where we are on the map and a bit of recognition.

Liz: I think that was because we actually just said “let’s open on Wednesday and see what happens”, so we hadn’t done a lot in advance. We just opened the doors and hoped for the best.

Why did you want to open in Dennistoun?

Nick: Just that this is where we live and it’s the only place we know, really.

Liz: We always wanted to do it here because we live here and we’ve got two young kids as well [Billy and Sonny – the name of the restaurant is a combination of both of their names], so we’re looking for a balance, hopefully when the kids are a bit older they can come in here for lunch and dinner.

Nick: Less travel as well, you know. There are points during the week when say the bread’s been done and stuff and we come in a bit later, eleven o’clock.

There seems to be more of a scene here than there was maybe a few years ago. Does that help with your confidence in opening here? Do you get the sense that people are starting to look east as well as west for their food?
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Nick: Absolutely. If you do something really good, people will travel a little bit. They’re not going to go, “Oh that’s Dennistoun, I’m not going to go there.” Our concept that we were going to do, we were never about big numbers, 40, 50 seats or anything like that. It was always going to be quite bespoke, small, intimate, so we were quite confident that for a 20 seat restaurant, we could get people in.

Are you connecting with local folk or are you finding that people are coming from all over?

Nick: Initially, the first two or three weeks, it was Dennistoun and then we started hearing ‘oh, we’ve come from the West End, and we’ve come from Bearsden and stuff like.’ It’s just spreading out a bit.

Liz: It’s been great, actually, the support from people locally, other businesses, they’ve been great, because they’re so excited to have something like this in the area as well. They’ve been great.

Finnieston is kind of the poster boy for creating a food scene in the city. The businesses on Argyle Street really work hard to get that message out and they collaborate with each other. Do you think Duke Street is getting to that tipping point were you get enough places to become a fun part of town to go for a night out?

Nick: Yeah that would be smashing. You could theoretically come here for dinner at 5pm and then go to Redmond’s and that’s your night sorted. A great night.

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Your own background as a chef, Nick, has it always been fine dining orientated?

Nick: Well, at Two Fat Ladies it was always aimed at that fine dining thing, really. I think fine dining is more service than anything. Food can be playful, food can be all these kind of things, but I think fine dining is very much related to the setting and how you present the food. The way it is presented by the people who are servers, whereas that’s definitely not what we do here. We’re very casual. It’s higher end food, we try and do more with it, just to make it exciting and to have a bit of creativity rather than just going, ‘oh, this is the classical way of cooking this’. It’s a bit mundane.

That’s an interesting challenge for a chef, to come into somewhere like Glasgow where we’re used to a very relaxed atmosphere to dine in, but at the same time, there is an opportunity to try new things, to have a high standard of ingredients and flavours.

Nick: It’s fantastic. There’s just so many ingredients to use and once you get cooking you can do more with them.

Was it always an ambition to set out on your own?

Nick: Not really, but it gets to a point where you have to set out on your own to do what you want to do. If somebody had come up to me and said, “do you want to be a head chef, do exactly what you want to do, here’s a budget to do it then this might never have opened. It’s not something that we chased. We definitely wanted to put our stamp on something, but it probably wouldn’t have happened as soon.

Two Fat Ladies was great for a period, but there’s so many restrictions, especially with the amount of people they take at the same time and the size of the kitchen and stuff like that. You can only do certain things.

A photo posted by Nick Rietz (@bilsoneleven) on

You are BYOB at the moment – I know you are expecting your licence to be confirmed soon, so that will change, but how has that been working out for you?

Liz: People are enjoying it, they’re bringing nice bottles of wine in. Everyone that we’ve spoken to, it’s not put anybody off coming here.

Nick: We had someone come in with a plastic bottle of vodka, which was quite funny. We didn’t know what to charge for corkage on that.

It’s good for what it is at the moment. One of our staff, Mark, is a trained sommelier and he likes creating cocktails and stuff like that, so I can’t wait to see what he’s going to create, also how he’s going to bring the wine list together. It’s fantastic, his knowledge is amazing. We try to eat out as much as we can, we don’t get to do that much, but when we do then wine is a huge part of the experience. We always go for the wine flight. That’s a great occasion, being brought this lovely wine from halfway across the world.

What do you think the food scene is like in Glasgow?

Liz: I think we’re in a really good position at the moment in Glasgow, there’s a real appetite, people want Glasgow to work in terms of food. They want new places to pop up.

Nick: You do see more of that now. If you live in a place and you enjoy it, you want it to be nice, you want to be proud of it.

Glasgow doesn’t have a Michelin Star restaurant at the moment, I often wonder if that’s because they have very narrow ideas about what service should be like and that doesn’t really fit for Glasgow.

I think they’re relaxing a bit more. They’re handing it to more casual places. I think they’re a bit more holistic now, looking at the overall experience when you go to a place.

You just want someone to say that you’re doing a good job, really, that’s what it comes down to. It just means you’re on the right tracks and you’re doing well. You know yourself, you know if you’re creating something as a chef, you know yourself when you’re doing well, or I hope you do, because if not, you’ll struggle.

Tell me about the food here. It’s fairly Scottish in terms of influences isn’t it?

We don’t limit it. There’s two of us in the kitchen, myself and Luche Robel. Luche’s from Eritrea and he brought back some spices from Ethiopia from where his family live now. There was some berbere and I tried using that for a staff dinner and it was awesome so we put something on the menu as an amuse-bouche. We’ll take influences from everywhere.

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What about the curried skink that’s something of a signature dish on the menu, how did that recipe come about?

Nick: I did a Cullen skink every day of my life. Every day I worked in Two Fat Ladies I was chopping potatoes and slicing leeks. It was just a bowl of soup but people do like it. When you do it for seven years, every day, you start thinking about how you can jazz it up.

I was in an Indian restaurant and they brought out this dish, it was part of the tasting menu, this sea bass and it had been cooked with a mustard and black pepper spice. It’d been charred, so you got these almost burned, on the edge of being bitter seasoning and spicing. It was fantastic and that inspired my curried skink. We char the haddock with a blowtorch.

How fixed is your menu now, how often do you change it?

Nick: The menu changed when we reopened after Christmas. We’re lucky that we have these wee elements that we can play about with, the amouse-bouche and the palette cleansers and stuff. I’ll make a few changes with the change of season. It’s probably going to change every couple of months.

I suppose, when you’ve got a small dining room like the one here, you’re so close to the action with the people that are coming in, you’ll soon know which dishes are hitting their mark.

Nick: Definitely, and that’s happened. I had a dish on the first week that I changed, it was a haggis and winter vegetable dish. We were doing that but it turned out that it wasn’t economical time-wise to do this and we didn’t get good reactions, so we just changed that.

I know you make your own breads here, what else about your menu should we know?

Nick: Well, we don’t ever mention it, but we do have chips if people ask for them. The chips, I’ve cooked twice already, boiled it. I soak it in pectin-x, which takes the pectin out of things, so you can just peel it and it’s like a wee pristine gem. It’s fantastic, what you do is you soak your chips in that to begin with, and it wrecks the structure of it, so you can these crisp, fluffy chips. So many of these chips, I’ve frozen them after bake cooking them twice and then I’ve dropped them in the fryer and I’ll reheat, and they’re fantastic, they’re the best chips I’ve ever tasted, they’re unbelievable. We don’t have them on the menu, but if somebody asks for them as a side, we do give them. They’re smashing.

What about dessert? We like our sweets in this town.

Nick: We’ve got the sticky ginger pudding. That’s probably the most popular. The whiskey panacotta, that’s probably more of our signature dessert.

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How did you end up opening in this building?

Liz: I love Dennistoun as a whole, but I’ve just always loved this street. Across from it is Sword Street, which, years ago it was the hub of the area, but now it’s just loads of closed shops. Nick thought we should look there.

Nick: We spoke to the owner of a couple of shops at Sword Street and explained what we wanted to do. He was keen but then said it was up to his brother and then he just disappeared. My heart was really in that street, because if we did it and we did it well, I thought people would come, because I thought it’s quite a beautiful street.

Liz: As soon as we walked in here though, we just knew this was the place. I brought a friend who owns a hotel to have a look with me and he said “you need to get that building”. The owner loved the idea of our restaurant. We didn’t change too much structurally. Putting in the kitchen was the main thing.

One of the main advantages of having your own restaurant is the fact you can experiment with dishes and really put your own stamp on the menu. Has that been your experience so far?

Nick: Of course, and that’s the whole joy of only opening at night times. Most places, you’re rushing to get stuff ready for lunch service, you do lunch service, and then you’re prepping again for the night, taking a wee break, and you never get to experiment. You never get that downtime to create. I remember watching a Chef’s Table documentary. A New Zealand chef was saying he just never had the space and he had to rent another unit to research the menu, because there was just no space in the kitchen. It was always prep and service. We have fantastic room here to move our food forward ourselves.

Bilson Eleven
10 Annfield Place
Glasgow
G31 2XQ

Bilson Eleven Food Menu

TRUFFLED EGG YOLK WITH BEETROOT – £7
crispy truffled egg yolk, salt baked beetroot, beetroot meringue, beetroot gel
MONT D’OR AND MUSHROOMS – £8
vacherin mont d’or cheese mousse, pickled mushroom, mushroom crackers, ham, capers
CARAMEL CHICKEN – £8
chicken liver parfait , chicken mousseline, quince, caramel, crouton
CURRIED SKINK – £9
pepper and mustard haddock, charred leek, potato curry, cumin veloute
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COD, CAULIFLOWER AND HAGGIS – £17
cod fillet, roast cauliflower, haggis puree, crispy kale, tarragon
SALMON WITH MOULES MARINIERE – £18
salmon fillet, mussels, shallots, parsley puree, white wine, garlic cream
PORK BELLY AND BROWN SAUCE CHEEK – £20
belly of pork, glazed cheek, turnip, pickled apple puree, brown sauce
BEEF, ONION AND POTATOES – £24
onion crusted beef fillet, potato fondant, potato foam, onion puree, onion gravy
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GINGER. CAKE, BEER AND BISCUIT – £7
sticky ginger cake, ginger biscuit, ginger beer caramel, clotted cream
CHOCOLATE/ORANGE – £8
chocolate sorbet, chocolate orange mousse, clementines, orange puree
WHISKY. THE BARLEY. THE DRINK. THE MAC – £8
talisker set custard, malt barley foam, barley sauce, pepper biscuit, smoked apple, green ginger wine
CHEESEBOARD – £12
cheese, crackers, accompaniments
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TEA OR COFFEE WITH PETIT FOURS – £4