Whilst in town for the Abergavenny Food Festival a few weeks back, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to dine at the storied Walnut Tree – a restaurant that has had somewhat of a chequered history in its 60-odd years, including a less-than-flattering appearance on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. But since legendary “chef’s chef” Shaun Hill took over the kitchen in 2008 it has retained a Michelin star and an excellent reputation.
As was well-publicised this summer, The Walnut Tree had to temporarily close due to the staff shortages that are currently endemic in the hospitality industry. Service still seemed to be a little stretched on this autumnal visit but none of this seemed to faze Hill who, impressively at his senior age, appeared to be working in the kitchen more or less alone and popped into the dining room occasionally to calmly oversee proceedings.
Indeed, despite its pub roots (I wasn’t quite prepared for the outhouse toilets or boisterous boozers making their presence known in the bar area), there were impressive touches throughout, from the free shuttle taxi service from sister business The Angel Hotel (a godsend if you don’t want to drive), tables spaced apart and a cocktail menu well-versed in the classics, including a pitch-perfect Vesper for £9.50. As for the wine, an unashamedly Old World list with a pleasing selection of wines by half bottle for those wanting to take it easy, all at sensible mark-ups.
And then began a meal of comforting, restorative classics, all perfectly executed without any unnecessary flourishes or wheel reinvention. A twice-baked Lancashire cheese soufflé (£14) was served with a judicious shaving of Welsh truffle on top: noticeable enough for a heady woodland scent but without upstaging the cheese. Texturally, the soufflé could’ve been a little lighter perhaps but as opening statements of intent go, this set the bar high. Similarly, the steak tartare (£16) may have been no better than the tartare at Brasserie Zedel, Saint Jacques or Otto’s (my usual tartare yardsticks) but no worse either, and there was huge reassurance in that.
By the main courses it became clear that good quality ingredients are in safe hands here, unsullied by fanciful notions. John Dory with coco de paimpol, squash and artichoke (£36) was simple and delicious. Meanwhile, the beef fillet may have been a slightly parsimonious helping (a couple of small slices for £38), the cuisson was spot-on, complemented by simple vegetables and a little pan jus – no tweezered micro herbs in sight.
Desserts, all at £12, were similarly straightforward. I was slightly concerned that the orange and almond cake, presented with candied fruit as if it was a dish from Loyd Grossman-era Masterchef in the early 90s, was going to be too dry. A solitary dollop of crème fraiche may not have been sufficient. But the moisture was all in the cake itself, joyous forkful after forkful. As for the retro plum, apple and blackberry pudding, the autumnal fruit sang without too much heaviness from the suet.
Finally, a cheeky Martinez (also £9.50), the sweeter precursor to the Martini, perfectly rounded off the experience. In any case, no driving was required thanks to the free lift back to the hotel.
There’s a huge amount to admire in the simplicity and self-assurance of Hill’s cuisine. Perhaps it could be criticised for being a bit ‘safe’ or not being particularly ground-breaking. Pedants may also say it doesn’t feel particularly “Welsh” – apart from a rarebit on the dessert menu and leek in the one vegetarian main course available, that was about it. But I don’t think that really matters. Even if the style seems to be classic European, most of the ingredients are locally sourced. The meal was delightful, fairly priced and virtually faultless. Long may this charming roadside inn continue.
by J A Smith