A birthday meal at an unnamed location. We had to drive – so I knew I wasn’t getting Cliff at Frankie & Benny’s this year! It was somewhere I’d always wanted to go – so I knew I wasn’t getting Cliff at Frankie & Benny’s this year! I had to wear a shirt – so I knew I wasn’t getting Cliff at Frankie & Benny’s this year! Ok, ok, I know it’s in the title, but I needed an intro…
As mystery’s go, it probably wasn’t the hardest to solve for me either. There were a few clues – “we must drive,” and “it’s about an hour away” being the most obvious…
Leaving the house and heading towards Ponty confirmed my suspicions – and I was onto a ‘dead cert’ when we took the exit signed Abergavenny off the roundabout (although I admit to being thrown off the scent a little when Mrs. B.B. later missed a few turnings – couldn’t think of anywhere in Hereford!).
So, yes, finally, after several years of online drooling, but thinking we couldn’t use up our monthly dining budget on one night out (clearly lacking the average food blogger budget), we were about to have our first meal at The Walnut Tree…
So far away… well, not really
Given the unintended detour, The Walnut Tree appeared even more remote than the reality – when we also got lost on the return leg, we found its location in Llandewi Skirrid is actually very close to Abergavenny town centre – which only served to heighten my expectations on arrival. If people are willing to come all this way, it has got to be amazing.
“I maybe even wanted to feel out of place by the pretentiousness of it all.”
The Michelin-star, celebrity chef, recollections of eyewatering prices online, and the brand-new sports cars and land rovers parked outside (I assume the kitchen and waiting staff aren’t that well paid) all added to the prospect of an uncomfortable evening – I maybe even wanted to feel out of place by the pretentiousness of it all.
In fact, I felt right at home.
The lavatory I visited on the way in may have had flannels to dry your hands, but it was a bit shabby, with a wonky toilet seat and an awkward layout…
The inn itself is impressive enough, but “informal” is certainly the right word, as you enter onto a small bar area (no beers on tap!) and a warm if unfussed welcome from whichever staff member was tidying up at the time.
Mrs. B.B. wasn’t drinking so we didn’t stop for long, but there is the option to sit near the bar before moving into the dining area.
On your marks, get set…
The dining room (split by a dividing wall) was tidy if unremarkable – quite a few tables given the floor space and quite a few abstract pictures given the wall space.
If you happen to be seated (like ourselves) near the door to the kitchen, it does feel quite cramped and busy, with staff members sprinting back and forth – definitely, no time to enquire about your meal.
The couple nearest clearly weren’t happy and asked to be moved about 10 minutes into their service. Not the best place for a romantic evening, then.
We were seated next to each other against the wall, so it wasn’t quite as irritating, but it was a noticeable distraction – and made capturing photographs without unblurred individuals more of a challenge as the room filled up.
As did the dimmed lighting, which I guess pairs with the general, relaxed vibe they are aiming for – but didn’t achieve on this busy evening.
You finished yet?
We were presented with an extensive (and increasingly expensive) wine
menu book as we sat down. Mrs. B.B. was on mineral water, so I enquired about the beers – only two and both disappointing: Estrella and (I think – it may have been Budweiser) Budvar (I knew it wasn’t worth asking for clarification, put it that way). I would have expected more support for Welsh craft breweries, but I guess they rely on the wine mark-up.
“My options were limited somewhat by Mrs. B.B.’s reactions to calf’s brains and pig’s head.”
The menu itself was more extensive than I would have expected from a fine dining establishment, but my options were limited somewhat by Mrs. B.B.’s reactions to calf’s brains and pig’s head. As tends to be the case, I went for the meatiest sounding options and Mrs. B.B. went veggie for the evening.
Swiftly after taking our orders (the only thing they seemed reluctant to deliver on the night was the bill), we were presented with an aperitif:
A cauliflower cheese stuffed croquette. You really can’t go wrong with cauliflower cheese, and I wouldn’t have expected a Michelin-starred restaurant to fail me now.
Crispy on the outside, mushy on the inside, with an intense cheesy flavour. It was gone in a mouthful – but not to worry, here comes the bread!
I’m not sure if etiquette is to save the bread to accompany your other dishes – as the more refined looking diners appeared to be doing – but me and Mrs. B.B. dived in. Tearing the buttermilk bread in two and lashing on the butter.
What’s not to love about soft warm bread – especially when it’s as luxurious as this (verging on a dessert). Although there was an overwhelming saltiness not just from the butter.
I was tempted by the deep friend porthilly oyster with chorizo and chilli mayonnaise – although seeing the amount of chew effort a fellow diner had to put in, I’m glad I opted to play it safe with:
Confit quail with grapes, morteau and madeira.
For me, this was the standout dish of the evening.
Every part of the quail was on the plate and cooked with real care – the meat was moist and the skin slightly charcoaled giving it a slightly smoked flavour. Every other ingredient complemented – whether it was the smokiness of the morteau sausage or the almost BBQ flavour of the madeira sauce.
It was delicate and precise cooking – you could imagine someone laying this out with a set of tweezers in the kitchen – but crucially it tasted wonderful. The only downside of eating somewhere with this price tag is Mrs. B.B. wouldn’t let me pick up the bones to consume the tiny morsels that remained.
After a little education from the waitress, Mrs. B.B. went for farfalle with courgettes, chilli, garlic and parmesan:
Farfalle is ‘bow-tie’ shaped pasta. It was layered with slivers of courgette, smothered in a punchy chilli sauce and finished with a light sprinkling of parmesan. The courgette added a lightness, whilst the sauce had the perfect amount of heat to leave your mouth tingling and wanting more.
I was almost swayed by the five-spice duck with sticky rice, soy and sesame, but who turns down rack of lamb when they see it? (Even if Mrs. B.B. had treated me to her home-cooked version the night prior!)
It arrived almost immediately after we finished our starters. Again, the cooking and the presentation were neat and tidy – is there someone in the kitchen cooking these peas individually?
“The mint was so subtle I was questioning whether it was even there.”
The lamb rack was a touch pink and melt in your mouth tender (shame they weren’t bigger – Mrs. B.B. did make a reference to the “poor little lamb”), the veg (peas, broad beans and broccoli) was firm to bite but not hard, and the chips / roast potatoes were crisp, fluffy and buttery.
But it wasn’t perfect. The rich lamb shoulder was a bit tough in places, and the sauce didn’t really add anything at all – the mint was so subtle I was questioning whether it was even there. Overall, I felt it lacked seasoning.
High quality meat and high-quality cooking – and I’d be more than happy if I had this at a restaurant charging <£20. But for £29, I was expecting the best lamb dish I’d ever had – and it wasn’t.
Mrs. B.B. seemed to get better value with her £16 summer vegetable target with quail eggs and coulommiers:
To say Mrs. B.B. was impressed when this arrived is understatement – cue 4000 photographs from every possible angle.
So here’s another one:
The collection of vegetables was beautifully assembled alongside the quails’ eggs on a delicately thin and crispy cheese pastry case. This was atop a pea puree and served with a side dish of baby Anya potatoes.
The variety of perfectly cooked veg – carrot, beetroot, broad bean, asparagus and courgette, to name just a few – was impressive and the rich cheese sauce within (watching that ooze out was a sight to behold) just brought everything together without overpowering any element.
One of the great things(?!) about fine dining is you pay 33-50% more, but you feel 33-50% less satisfied, which means we had room for a pudding.
Our indecision played into our favour. To that point, each dish had arrived just as we finished our last. You don’t want to hang around too long between dishes, but when you are paying big bucks for the ‘experience’, you kind of want to take your time over proceedings. With the general busyness of the room, we did feel a little rushed.
The frontrunners were the white chocolate and caramel fondant, and the chocolate, peanut and toffee delice, but I didn’t want to finish on a sickly note and opted for the cherry soup and almond ice cream.
Now it was a bit of a risk, but I thought, surely, they wouldn’t just serve me some cherry sauce with fresh cherries and a blob of ice cream in the middle. Err:
I appreciate it may all be about the ingredients and the flavours vs. ‘cheffy’ designs, but it was an uninspiring end to the meal.
“At least I’d had one of my five a day with the plump cherries, I suppose.”
The ice cream was nice – although I didn’t get the almond flavour from that at least. The cherry soup was very thin and a bit too sweet – just a hint of alcohol – although it went well with the ice cream (of which there wasn’t anywhere near enough). At least I’d had one of my five a day with the plump cherries, I suppose.
I slurped it up and splashed my shirt a few times, but found myself staring longingly at other diners’ blackberry summer puddings and pistachio cakes. I’d have left more content after a dense piece of sponge, I’m sure.
Mrs. B.B. lucked out with the gin and elderflower jelly with gooseberry ice cream:
When I spotted gin and gooseberry – two staples of Mrs. B.B.’s diet (in her dreams) – I knew this would be her choice. And she didn’t let me down.
I think Mrs. B.B. had concerns the elderflower jelly would be overpowering, but it matched well with the gooseberry. There was no mistaking the gooseberry flavour of the ice cream (or the compote), but the biscuit and red sauce (Mrs. B.B. was sure this was gooseberry flavoured also) were probably unnecessary. Still, her last words were, “that was divine.”
Whose birthday was this?!
Clearly, Mrs. B.B. had a better present for my birthday than I did.
“The starter will live long in the memory and the main, well, it was rack of lamb…”
I wouldn’t say it was a bad meal by any stretch – the starter will live long in the memory and the main, well, it was rack of lamb and it was cooked perfectly.
But when you are paying £100 (no wine, one beer), you want to feel wowed and leave a bit giddy – not thinking, “man, I’m tired and we’ve got an hour’s drive home now.”
It felt a bit safe… Dare I say, it was a bit boring?
I didn’t feel the passion or the love for the food that was being served up. I didn’t feel excited once. It was a very nice bit of grub. But I expected more.