"It's very recent that there has been good food here," says Shaun Hill, the amiable Irish-born chef–proprietor of the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, one of the best restaurants in Wales, "but there have always been good ingredients. What Wales has to offer is good producers, good people, and a blank slate."
I ate recently at a handful of the better restaurants in this mountainous, strongly Celtic country of about 8,000 square miles in the southwestern portion of the island of Great Britain — its capital and largest city, Cardiff, is about 130 miles due west of London — and certainly can't argue about the quality of the raw materials.
At every meal, the cooking was more than capable, if generally a little old-fashioned, but the ingredients shone through vividly, and made every meal a treat.
Plas Bodegroes is a Georgian country house in Pwllheli, in northwestern Wales (plas means country house or mansion in Welsh), repurposed as a "restaurant with rooms" — picture a comfortable B&B with a serious dining room. With its walls of light viridian green hung with well-chosen art and inset with illuminated alcoves, its high-back chairs and handsomely set tables, and its subtle indirect lighting, the restaurant conveys a sense of low-key gentility.
The restaurant was for some years the only one in Wales with a Michelin star. It lost that star half a dozen years ago or so, but there's certainly nothing wrong with the cooking. Regional ingredients like Nefyn Bay scallops, prosciutto-like Carmarthen ham, Loyn pork, and Welsh Mountain lamb fill the menu. We particularly enjoyed a breast of guinea fowl, juicy and flavorful, with a piece of well-seasoned guinea fowl sausage on the side, and a perfectly cooked piece of locally landed cod with crisp skin and a smoked haddock mash — a play, says chef Chris Chown, who owns the place with his wife, Chunna, on kedgeree.Creamy whipped Welsh goat cheese with red pepper jam, semi-dried tomatoes, and dots of black olive paste (presumably not made with Welsh olives; they can't grow everything here) and a tian of local crab with cucumber and accents of avocado purée were ideal appetizers.
A hundred miles or so southeast of Pwllheli, overlooking the bay in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, is a restaurant with a very different feeling — the awkwardly named Tempus at Tides, at the St. David's Hotel and Spa. This is a big, noisy, generic hotel dining room with shaky service and a middling wine list — but the food is surprisingly good. Thin-sliced cured Carmarthen ham could have used more age, but had a meaty character nicely offset by the accompanying onion marmalade. A double-baked Caerphilly cheese soufflé with wild garlic sauce was an unusual but successful starter, slightly sour and very rich. Linguine with little Burry Port clams couldn't have been better, the pasta cooked just to the right point, the clams sweet and fresh. Breconshire lamb medallions with a white wine mint sauce (and buttered leeks and Lyonnais potatoes on the side) nicely upheld the reputation of Wales for producing full-flavored lamb with a faint herbal flavor.
Seen from the outside (if you can find it to begin with; signage is modest), Holm House, a hotel in the Cardiff suburb of Penarth, is rather grim-looking, offering a yellowed stucco façade with no hint of life behind the massive door. What a surprise it is, then, to walk into a small, handsome, wood-framed lobby that gives way to a large, bright, contemporary-style dining room with a broad terrace looking out on a park-like setting, with the Bristol Channel glistening in the distance. And what a surprise it is to find such well-crafted and imaginative food.
Creamy whipped Welsh goat cheese with red pepper jam, semi-dried tomatoes, and dots of black olive paste (presumably not made with Welsh olives; they can't grow everything here) and a tian of local crab with cucumber and accents of avocado purée were ideal appetizers, both beautifully presented and bright in flavor, with their elements deftly balanced. Fish and chips came as one big hunk of flaky beer-battered cod, with crisp-edged thrice-cooked chips, puréed (but not quite mushy) peas, and tarragon-scented tartare sauce — a presentation that upgraded the usual pub or chip shop dish without losing its essential character. Welsh beef, almost as well-regarded as Welsh lamb, was done justice here with thick, jagged slices of roast rump sandwiched between a bed of crisp-roasted potato cubes and a cap of deflated Yorkshire pudding, atop big cubes of crisp roasted potatoes, with a smear of celeriac purée and rivulets of classic red wine sauce on the side.
A simple blood orange sorbet would have made a perfect dessert after this meal, but unfortunately, it was served between our appetizers and main courses as a "palate cleanser" — a silly pretension I would have hoped had long since been abandoned by any serious restaurant.
Our best meal in Wales came at the aforementioned Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, northeast of Cardiff on the edge of Wales' celebrated Brecon Beacons National Park.
The Walnut Tree was a small rural pub when Franco Taruschio, an Italian from the Marche who had been sent to England to study local cooking and the English language, bought the place in 1963. "I spent six months in England," Taruschio told me, "and two days before I was going to leave, I met the woman who became my wife." She was English, and once Taruschio decided that he wasn't going back to Italy, he and she decided to open a business together.
Cooking was his chosen field, so they looked for a place to buy — and found it in the hills outside Abergavenny. "When we bought the place," he recalls, "you couldn't get ingredients. We used to grow our own vegetables and herbs and beg the local farmers for chickens and rabbits. The idea of 'no food miles' was forced on me. We had no choice."
Taruschio admits that he wasn't a very good publican, but because he knew how to cook, he started serving food — French classics at first — with only two tables beside the bar. Then Egon Ronay and Raymond Postgate, both of whom published influential restaurant guides, happened by separately and wrote good reviews of the place. Taruschio started cooking the dishes of his home region in Italy, with some Welsh touches and of course based on Welsh ingredients. "People started driving here from England," he says, "and the Welsh actually started to believe that there could be good food here."
After 37 years of running the place, and gaining it a reputation as one of the best rural restaurants in the U.K., Taruschio sold it to concentrate on writing cookbooks. The subsequent owner had problems — the restaurant won a Michelin star in 2002 but lost it two years later; it was also was featured on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares — and the place closed, remaining shuttered for two years.
Shaun Hill, who had been chef and managing director at the highly rated Gidleigh Park, a luxury country house hotel in Devon, took over the place in 2007, and in 2010 got the Michelin star back. Based on our meal of a silken chicken liver parfait with buttery bricohe, a tender rabbit fricassee with fresh peas, a slab of monkfish in a dense tomato reduction flavored with ginger and chiles, and a piece of light-as-air pistachio cake with apricot ice cream obviously made from the fresh fruit, it deserves it.
"I look for nice stuff to eat and try not to screw it up," says Hill. He seems to succeed.