The Walnut Tree

Cast your mind back to the first series of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares – you know, when the big man wasn’t quite such an over exposed caricature of himself. 2004, I think.

No? Not registering with you? Blanked it out?

Well there is one episode that I always seem to remember.

I remember it because it was about a restaurant that, we were told, had put South Wales (specifically, Abergavenny in the Brecon Beacons) on the culinary map. This is an area I spent many rain soaked days and nights in as a yoof. My recollections are mostly fond.  Yet back in 2004 I thought the existence of a famous restaurant in the area remarkable; gastronomique memories of South Wales for me were generally of school canteen chips, sausages and beans (after rugby matches), boil-in-the-bag rations (on the mountains) and, best of all, deep fried battered Mars bars from the chippy in a town called Crickhowell (having just come off the mountains), rather than of fine dining.

Since that show the name of the restaurant and its location has stayed on my mind and I have noted with interest how it closed down in 2007, got new owners shortly after that, and proceeded to gain a Michelin star and plenty of general praise within no time at all.

I’m still a regular visitor to the area – it doesn’t always rain – so it was only a matter of time until I would persuade my friends to interrupt a couple of days of walking with, hopefully, a good meal. We went last weekend.

The decor is modern and smart, without being stuffy, posh or overly styled. We were welcomed by friendly waiting staff and were presented with smoked salmon and creme cheese doughy bites and slices of a really good sausage roll ‘compliments of the chef’. We also shared a cracking and well priced bottle of NZ sparkling (Morton ‘Mimi’) as well as some lovely fresh bread as we sat down to peruse the menu.

Which was good as it takes a bit of time to go through the menu and select what you want: 11 starters, 9 mains and 9 desserts is too much for my little brain to focus on …

… and maybe too much for the kitchen too – we and a number of other tables waited for quite a while before our meals began to arrive.  Not a problem for me; I doubt kitchens delay on purpose and I’d rather not create a scene. But some tables were getting tetchy and it was interesting that the front of house came over without any prompting from us, apologised and offered a bottle of champagne. Fortunately, the corporate lawyer at the table diffused a potentially awkward situation by negotiating her down to a second basked of bread. [Yes, you did read that right. And yes, negotiation is a key part of his job.]

Aaanyhow, once the starters arrived, the rest of the meal followed at a perfect pace.

Our table selected 6 of the 11 starters, including a twice baked Lancashire cheese souffle, red mullet with tomato, chilli and ginger (the sauce was maybe a bit overpowering), an interesting rabbit pudding with sage and bacon (kind of like an eggy fondant with a rabbit sauce oozing from the middle), classic fois gras terrine and, for me, calf’s tail with sweetbreads and Madeira sauce. The sauce was really rich and moreish, the tasty meat flaked off the calf’s tail, and the large fist shaped sweetbread was awesome. But it was served in a silly cast iron pan that made it hard to eat and almost impossible to see. The feeling was that the starters were decent, but nothing amazing.

Mains were much better.  In fact they were loved across the board. Loin of venison was perfectly pink and came with it’s own venison cottage pie. One pal loved his rabbit dish, which involved a juicy puffy pastry pie, various other portions of bunny and liver and kidneys on the side.  Best rabbit he’s eaten, apparently. A cracking pigeon dish with veal and leek boudin was also thoroughly enjoyed and I really liked my generous portion(s) of brill in a spiced, saffrony mussel broth. Really really good. But again, served in a silly cast iron pan – which towards the end started to infuse a metallic flavour into the sauce. This could look beautiful on white crockery.  One minor blemish on an otherwise excellent set of dishes. The vegetable side dishes that we ordered were also delicious.

The standard dropped a bit with the desserts. I had a baked chocolate mousse, which was fine. The blood orange sorbet served with it wasn’t particularly strong and an unnecessary biscotti on the side was stale. Rhubarb cheesecake was too sweet for my liking and an STP was pretty standard, but nothing more. Petit fours that came as we were kicking back and enjoying the last of the wine on the table were very good though (and, again, compliments of the chef).

Overall I enjoyed the fact that the food was classic and uncomplicated and the vibe unpretentious, chatty and really quite pleasant.  There’s not much fuss and froth, which suits the restaurant and suited us. The mains were definitely the highlight; maybe I’d have a less positive view of the place if they hadn’t been of such a high standard. In any event, it’s decent value for what you get (mains are generally about £20, though sides are £4 extra; puddings are £7; only the starters feel a little steep at £9-£14).

I think there are better restaurants around that don’t have stars. But that is a pretty boring and irrelevant issue. The key point being that this a good country restaurant and if you’re in or near the area and looking for some good food, the Walnut Tree is worth looking out.  Particularly given the fish and chip shop in Crickhowell no longer batters chocolate bars.

The Walnut Tree in 3 words

Coeden cnau ffrengig.

The Bill

The landlord at our B&B had heard it cost £50, just to sit down.

But we had 3 courses each, some sides and enough reasonable value wine for 6 people to feel a little tipsy for a touch over £60 per head. – Llanddewi Skirrid, Monmouthshire NP7 8AW – 01873 852797