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Shaun Hill, The Walnut Tree

Shaun Hill, The Walnut Tree

Shaun Hill, The Walnut Tree

The Walnut Tree Inn Revisited

Following a recent visit to The Walnut Tree, where ETM where lucky enough t spend a meal viisted by the great man himself, we asked our reviewer, Philippe to post us a review re-visit.  Why not tell us what you think…

I can’t remember how long ago it was that Italian chef Franco Taruschio and his Welsh wife Ann went to the Walnut Tree Inn near Abergavenny. Over the years this hospitable couple made their simple country pub, at Llandewi Skirrid on the B4521, into one of the best known restaurants in the British isles. It was among the late Elizabeth David’s favourite places to eat, and she knew a thing or two about food. After all she taught my generation not only how to appreciate good food, but also how it should be cooked.

 

It wasn’t surprising that when the Taruschios eventually left there was a long line of ambitious chefs eager to take the place over. But this was easier said than done, after all the Walnut Tree was not just a restaurant; it had become a destination, an icon. After a few years of frankly disappointing cooking the old place has been given a good tidy up and now belongs to the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny. They have placed Shaun Hill in charge of the kitchens, he is the Michelin chef whose tiny Merchant House first put Ludlow on the foodies map.

 

A recent lunch time visit was an opportunity to see if Shaun had yet set his singular style on the place. The bar is almost as I first recall it, except that the huge open log fire is now gas with fake logs; but it does give out a great deal of welcoming warmth. The old round tables are still there, but it is now Shaun’s smiling face that beams around the door from the kitchen.

 

My companion for this foray was Alison Petitjean who, with her husband Joseph, runs the elegant, French style Brockencote Hall at Chaddesely Corbett. We stood in the packed bar with a glass of Marie Stewart champagne (£5) while we examined the menu and wine list. The menu offers ten eclectic starters priced from £6 to £12 for six No.1 Native Oysters from Helston. The ten main dishes range from £9 for a broad bean, herb and garlic tart to £20 for a saddle of farmed venison from the Brecon Beacons.

 

Alison started with seared monkfish with ginger, garlic and tomato, while I settled for a scintillating scallop tartare with scallop won ton fritters – both £9. The beautifully cooked and excellently sauced monkfish was a delight, while the scallops demonstrated Shaun’s skill at extracting flavours from choice fresh produce.

 

Wines by the glass

We decided on wines by the glass from a beautifully balanced, quality-led, list of interesting wines put together by Robin Jones, who was previously proprietor of the Croque-en-Bouche in Malvern. With our first courses we each had a glass of a quite outstanding South African white wine – Vondeling Babiana 2005 (£8.60), a blend of zesty Chenin Blanc and fruity Viognier.

 

Alison, who was driving, spared her wine to accompany her main course of grilled halibut with herb dumplings and spinach (£17). A simple enough sounding dish, but so perfectly cooked and sauced that it was an absolute triumph. My own choice of roast squab pigeon breast with pastilla of the legs (£17) was served with an excellent spinach purée whose minerally sharpness set off the rich flavours of the pink meat. The pastilla was a deep fried herb cushion containing a mince of the leg meat that added its own counter-point to the whole dish. I love pigeon, but this pigeon I loved more than most! Succulent and packed with flavour, it was certainly enhanced by the glass of St-Clair Pinot Noir 2006 from New Zealand’s Marlborough vineyard (£8.60).

Our desserts at £7 were equally pleasing. Alison’s buttermilk pudding with roasted figs was anything but a banal blancmange, while my lemon cheesecake served with cream had a zesty heart that would have impressed Minty – who according to Damon Runyan, in ‘Guys & Dolls’ , served the best cheesecake in New York.

Our coffees (£3) were so good that we went in for seconds, which may surprise those of you who know my constant critical comments of most restaurants who insist on making theirs on the solera system, like the Spanish make Sherry.

 

The room is smart in a rather minimalist urban bistro way. It is the sort of place in which a well-dressed woman would feel at ease as there is nothing in the decor to clash with her outfit. The handsome gleaming glassware set on solid oak tables gives a sense of well-being.

 

Shaun Hill’s genius is once again making the Walnut Tree a destination for lovers of fine food and wines. The cooking and presentation are both impeccable. The service, however, might be considered a shade ‘rustic’ but was thankfully free from those constant demands of ‘Is everything all right?’ which interrupt the flow of honest conversation. True, they were busy with two quite large parties and almost every table occupied, but while this didn’t phase the kitchen it seemed to remove the smiles from the faces of the servers. But then it is still a country inn at heart and not a grand restaurant, in spite of the outstanding dishes that come from the kitchen.

Review by Philippe Boucheron 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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