Gastronomic trial and error in Essex, London and now Bristol.
Thursday, 25 July 2013
The Walnut Tree - Abergavenny
So, I finally got to eat at The Walnut Tree last week, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for bloody ages. Located just outside Abergavenny, (in Wales in case your geography is as shit as mine) it’s long been regarded as somewhere a bit special.
‘Special how?’ I imagine you spitting at your screen in an agitated manner.
Well, let me furnish you with some restaurant history that’ll explain what’s what.
It doesn’t really matter what happened at the place before 1963, when Ann and Franco Taruschio took over. For the next 37 years, under their care The Walnut Tree became one of the most highly regarded places to eat in Britain, a favourite of Elizabeth David no less. If you’d been lucky enough to eat a meal there, cooked by Franco, it would almost certainly be a highly prized memory.
Ann and Franco sold The Walnut Tree in 2001, and the restaurant had a couple of owners in the proceeding years but it wouldn’t be till 2007 for it’s legendary reputation and fortunes to be finally restored by Chef Shaun Hill, the current owner and something of a legend himself.
Having begun his career under Robert Carrier (how many legends are involved in this frigging thing?), he went on to get a Michelin star at Gidleigh Park. But where I first heard of him was when I first really started becoming interested in food. Then, the restaurant everyone seemed to be talking about was Shaun Hill’s, The Merchant House in Ludlow, which was once voted the 14th best restaurant in the world.
So, acclaimed restaurant meets acclaimed chef. Here ends the history bit.
Believe or not, Abergavenny is no more than an hour from Bristol. It’s incredibly easy to get to on the train and once there, The Walnut Tree is an £8 cab ride from the station. Being from Essex, I still can’t quite get my head round how close Wales is.
I had an early lunch booked and service hadn’t quite kicked off as I walked in. I spied Shaun Hill standing near the bar. Elly and I ordered G&T’s and the man himself complimented us on our choice of drink before heading into the kitchen. I am not worthy and all that.
As the weather is suitably scorchio right now, furnace Britain etc, we sat outside to finish our drinks. Amuse in the form of delicate little éclairs filled with salmon and cream cheese with pickled cucumber were brought out. Perfect for a hot day.
I’m going to get this out of the way. If you’re ordering a la carte, I reckon The Walnut Tree is pretty bloody expensive and I speak as someone who doesn’t mind throwing a bit of moolah at a meal. The average price of a starter is around the £12 mark and a main £23. Throw in £8 for a dessert, bit of wine and a tip and it soon adds up. But, happily there’s a really good value three course set lunch menu at £27.50 and you are having your food cooked by a culinary God, so I’ll pack it in with the complaining but consider yourself warned.
Now seated in the main dining room we picked at some rather superb bread, served with unsalted butter, which I just don’t get, I want salted, godammit. I still ate it though and it was lovely.
Elly’s starter of lobster with sweetcorn and chilli looked absolutely belting, no fiddling with claws and what not, this was just the good stuff, big chunks of meat. I tried a bit and it was lovely.
My quail, bacon grapes and verjuice (unripe grape juice) was phenomenal. The quail, normally pretty fiddly to eat, had been butterflied and de-boned. The whole thing was so beautifully balanced, the sweetness of the grapes, saltiness of the bacon, the sharp acidity of the verjuice sauce and the bitter accompanying chicory leaves. It was without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I even mopped up all the juices with some bread, the plate went back so clean they could have reused it straightaway.
Elly, having decided to slum it after her lobster starter, had ordered turbot with spiced cauliflower and chermoula. For her, this was the highlight of the meal, a real treat and beautifully cooked.
Meanwhile, I was eating rib-eye of beef with braised chicory and salsa verde (well someone has to). A massive plate of food, and I couldn’t have been happier. Beautiful meat, medium rare and a nice sharp salsa verde. Perfect.
Accompanying this were dauphine potatoes, which were pretty damn nice but being a greedy bastard, I’d also ordered jabron potatoes as an extra side dish (I'd seen them featured on Simon Hopkinson's latest TV program, last week) and I really only had eyes for these. Let me just tell you now, jabron potatoes are frigging epic. Cooked potato chunks, baked with cream, garlic and cheese. Definitely as beautiful as it sounds.
Finally, something so simple but so elegant and well made, both of us were gobsmacked. Accompanying Elly's turbot was a small plate of tomato and red onion salad dressed and sprinkled with (we think) chervil. It was topped with green beans in a light tempura batter and it was just ridiculously good. It's a combination that neither of us had seen or tried before.
Onto desserts and Elly’s berry brulee was a bit workmanlike and unphotogenic, so I didn’t bother taking a photo. She also reckons she’d prefer it to be set a little more. Nevertheless it was still delicious, apparently. I didn’t get a look in.
I’d ordered chocolate marjolaine, a classic French layered dessert (I didn’t know this at the time, in fact I’d never heard of it before). It was nice, probably not £8 nice, but good.
Neither of the desserts we ate really lived up to previous courses, but I’m not complaining. Lunch at The Walnut Tree was one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had anywhere, really special. The service was spot on, not too formal, pitched just right. The food was just beautiful and it tasted phenomenal. Expensive? Yep. Worth it? Yep.
At the end of the day, you’re eating food cooked by Shaun Hill and I’d say it’s every bit as good as what that promises.
Until recently Essex - Now 'on tour' in Bristol, United Kingdom
"I wouldn't call it so much a peek as a full blown expose of your innermost culinary pretentions and ambitions. You're effectively rolling over and exposing the soft paunch of your underbelly and asking to be caressed. You're a culinary whore!"