Fine wine and magnificent food at The Walnut Tree
Food and eating out is a great passion of mine but this is a blog about wine, and very rarely do I write restaurant reviews unless there is a very good reason. My experience this last weekend offered not one good reason, but two superb ones:
An exquisitely chosen and well priced wine list
The cooking of a real superstar chef
The Walnut Tree just outside Abergavenny is a culinary legend, which was run by Franco Taruschio for over 35 years, until he sold up in 2000. It became known as one of the best restaurants in Wales during that time and its wonderful to see it back where it belongs after some difficult times (anyone remember seeing it on the awful Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in 2004??).
The restaurant is now run by the brilliant Shaun Hill, who since taking over the reins in 2008 has won the restaurant a Michelin star and was awarded UK restaurant of the year in 2009. Shaun has worked in some fantastic kitchens but rose to fame at Gidleigh Park, where he even appeared in one of Keith Floyd’s brilliant TV programmes! However it was The Merchant House in Ludlow where he gained huge critical acclaim, cooking single handedly every night for 24 lucky diners… It’s my biggest culinary regret that I never got to eat there.
But no point in regretting the past, at least we can all now enjoy Shaun’s cooking at the wonderful Walnut Tree. Recently Shaun appeared on Simon Hopkinson’ excellent cookery programme where his food was described as “simple”. His response was brilliant:
“It takes 6 chefs 10 to 12 hours a day to make it this simple.”
The biggest difficulty here is choosing what to have as everything on the menu sounds amazing. Luckily the four of us all went for different options – was dining with The Fish and the in-laws – the event was Den’s birthday. For starters we had Steak Tartare and chips, Quail with grapes, sweetbreads with sour kraut, and a salad of courgettes and sugar snap peas. It was all delicious and really got the tastebuds going.
Main courses included skate with pancetta and broad beans, suckling pork with morcilla and empanada, sea bass with mussels in a spicy broth, and skirt steak with Provençal tomato. Everything was cooked to perfection and the combination of ingredients and flavours were spectacular. I also have to give a special mention the dauphine potatoes that came with the beef – they were like potato doughnuts and possibly the best carbohydrate side dish of all time!
There wasn’t really room for dessert… But we didn’t let that stop us. Chocolate and raspberry torte, strawberry pavlova, gooseberry jelly crumble, and chocolate and pear tart. What’s not to like? Well nothing actually, it was all tip-top and we were just left smiling and shaking our heads at the skill of the kitchen. Everything was sublime. And the real beauty is there is no pretence whatsoever. The staff are delightfully friendly yet unobtrusive, there are no smears and foams on the plate; everything is just as it should be. Brilliant food in a wonderful environment.
Oh, and there was the wine too!
The last time I wrote about a restaurant wine list it was to praise the amazing value of the list Ye Olde Bull’s Head in Beaumaris… Well it seems that Wales is the place for excellent value wine as The Walnut Tree also boasts a wonderful selection at very agreeable prices. The list is also organised in an extremely logical format:
Essential wines – varietal wines that everyone will recognise
Core wines – exciting newer stuff and shining stars that are good value
Classic wines – plenty of famous wines at nit so famous prices
There’s a lovely piece on their website talking about how wine service in restaurants can be quite elaborate, but their approach is straightforward; offer you a taste to check the condition, pour a small glass for each diner and then leave it up to you. Wonderfully simple and exactly what most diners crave, I know I hate it when waiters are constantly topping up glasses.
I wanted a bottle of white and a bottle of red and I like to go for one from the old world and one from the new. I’m a bit more experimental with my white wines but its probably no surprise that I selected a Riesling from New Zealand and a red Burgundy. But i could’ve gone for any number of combinations as the selection is beautifully considered and put together. Mark-ups are around 100% up on retail prices which I consider to be very fair, especially when so many places in London are upwards of 300%.
Here’s what we enjoyed:
Spy Valley Riesling 2011, Marlborough, NZ (£34.00)
If I didn’t know I would’ve thought this wine came from Western Australia – it shares that wonderful pithy lime character which just gets the mouth watering. There’s just a hint of the tropics in the background and a bone dry, almost chalky finish. An excellent wine for the starter courses or maybe just as an aperitif. 92 points
Domaine Marechal Pommard 2009, Burgundy (£64.00)
Delightfully delicate and silky for a Pommard. Having said that there is plenty of leather and animal hiding beneath the delicious red currant and wild strawberry fruit. I love these Pinots from the Côte de Beaune and this is another cracker – I will certainly be on the lookout for more Marechal offerings. 93 points