Turning off the B4589 onto Llansantffraed Court Hotel’s private drive, I am immediately reminded that this four-star country house hotel and restaurant sits in a stunning location. The William and Mary style, grade II listed building is surrounded by 20 acres of lawns, and is complete with its own lake and walled kitchen garden, whose content is to feature heavily on our menu this evening.
Also in the gardens is a small church, parts of which may date back to the 16th century. The church is named after St Bridget who is often portrayed as having the power to multiply such things as butter, bacon and milk. I take this as a good sign for the night ahead.
As we reach the head of the drive the authentic sound of gravel under the tyre heralds the arrival at the main entrance to the Llansantffraed Court Country House Hotel and Restaurant. Let the evening begin.
After our excellent summer, there is a noticeable drop in temperature as we move through autumn and so we opt to peruse the menus in the bar, where Mrs A can seek warmth from the fireplace. Llansantffraed’s Court Restaurant offers a number of menu choices including a set dinner menu at around £27.50 and an individually priced à la carte menu. We have come for the six course Chef’s Tasting Menu at £50 which may be paired with a wine flight, if desired, for an additional £35. Llansantffraed has a very extensive and eclectic wine list (the .pdf on their web site is 22 pages long!) and a very expensive preservation system allows them to offer the vast majority by the glass, which is very good news indeed.
I particularly like the fact that even the Tasting Menu can change on a daily basis to reflect whatever is freshest in both the walled kitchen garden and at their suppliers. It is worth pointing out that Llansantffraed proudly displays a list of its main suppliers alongside their menu and on their website. We all want to support and enjoy local produce, but as well as being local it has to be good. Fortunately in this area local and good is readily available, allowing the restaurant to source 75% of its ingredients within a 20 mile radius. Produce from the walled garden is of course measured in food yards not miles!
Back inside we have the option of choosing to have the Tasting Menu served to us “blind”, an option which appeals to me or, more traditionally, with prior knowledge an option that appeals to Mrs A, not normally one for surprises. So, of course, we opt to see the menu in advance and I am delighted to find that it is suitably vague with each course simply listed as its main ingredient e.g. scallop, bass, lamb. I like this form of menu presentation as it still tells you what you are going to be eating but doesn’t mean that you get the chance to prejudge the dish in terms of content or presentation.
Even though we were now aware of the main ingredient of each course, the excellent and friendly staff took time to ensure that we had no allergies, intolerances or dislikes that could have affected our enjoyment of what was ahead.
Whilst all this was unfolding we received some canapés from the kitchen. There were some delightfully light and savoury cheese gourgères, a small raft of cockle ‘popcorn’, savoury anchovy palmiers and a turkey mousse.
The restaurant, some parts of which date back to 1670, is tastefully done; the walls are lined with images from a local photographer (and are available for sale). Comfortable chairs, an increasing rarity in the rush to style over substance, are accompanied by white linen tables giving an intimate ambience that still manages to feel relaxed and not stuffy.
First to arrive is the Amuse Bouche, a Kataifi wrapped Quails Egg served with Mushroom, Pea Three Ways and slices of Truffle alongside a Truffle Custard. I love truffle so I was in heaven already, but you know that the make or break for this dish is going to come when you slice into that quails egg. Will the yolk be runny or not? These things are so small that only a few seconds separates delightful, runny, unctuousness from the disaster that is hard boiled. Oh well done Chef, right on the money!
After the Amuse Bouche we get to try some of the home baked breads which are so good Mrs A, knowing my penchant for all things doughy has to stop me from asking for more on the basis that we have a few more courses to come yet.
Our first course, labelled simply as “Scallop”, turns out to be just a little bit more than that. Beautifully cooked scallops, served with sea spinach and sea aster alongside different types of cauliflower – purple, quenelle , puree and even a cauliflower panna cotta – accompanied by apple cured belly pork and apple purée. A great combination of well-tried flavours is in evidence here, with the innovative cauliflower variations introducing some nice texture changes.
Next up is “Bass”. Here we have line caught Bass served with Artichoke, Artichoke Crisp and Octopus. Expertly cooked fish, from a Chef who prides himself on his fish preparation and who even spent time at Ashton’s fish market in Cardiff to master the skills. He cooks it as well as he prepares it, trust me on that. The Octopus was cooked in a Greek style and added a rich texture and taste to the dish.
Following the fish courses it was time to move onto “Lamb” in the form of Lamb Loin, Lamb Breast and Sweetbread. Served with vegetables from the walled garden such as leeks, potatoes, butternut squash, wild garlic, Gower samphire and a flavourful lamb jus this was rich and hearty.
The first of our sweet courses is entitled “Lemon” and presents as sharp lemon custard with blackberries, blackberry sorbet, blackberry coulis, pistachio and meringue. This is a beautiful light harmonious dessert celebrating the bounty of blackberries in the hedgerow this year!
Our second sweet bills itself simply as “Chocolate”. Chocolate Cookie Ice Cream, Molten Chocolate Cake Cup and jug of warm booze! As Mrs A put it “This is chocolate milk and cookies for adults.”
To summarise, Mrs A and I truly loved the meal. It’s a great reflection of what dining in a country house hotel should be. High quality, local ingredients cooked superbly by a chef that understands both flavour and texture. There is a high level of skill on display here, in both process and cooking. Credit to Chef Hendry for being able to demonstrate both, whilst not being distracted from what, for us, is the primary objective, flavour.
At the end of our fabulous dinner, our waiter arrives looking slightly perplexed. “I’ve never done this before” he says, leaving me wondering what ‘this’ is. Fortunately he goes on, “Chef was planning to pop out and say hello at some point, but we’ve got another party due any minute and so he’s a bit busy. So he’s asked me to come and ask you if you’d like to visit him in the kitchen instead.” From the look on his face I can see that he really never has done this before and I am reminded of a certain 1970’s sit-com in which a Mr Rumbold was prone to mutter “This is most irregular.” Irregular or not we jumped at the chance.
The one thing that most country house hotel kitchens seem to have in common is that they have, by necessity, been shoe-horned into totally unsuitable amounts of space. With a restaurant and a strong wedding trade you really expect the kitchens at Llansantffraed to be much bigger than they actually are. That food of this quality is coming out of them is a testament not only to the skills of the Chef, but also to how he runs his team. It is the teamwork (or lack of it) that can make or break a place and so credit must also go to owner Mike Morgan for investing both money and time in building his team and integrating front and back of house so well.
So who is this Chef that is revitalising the hotel’s restaurant and adding yet another destination to the local Monmouthshire food scene? Well he goes by the name of Mike Hendry and is originally from Ayrshire. Mike began his career as a Chef aged 21 and came to Wales in 2003 after being offered a position at the Michelin starred Crown at Whitebrook where he remained until it closed early in 2013. Mike rose through the ranks to become Sous Chef; his six years of working in a Michelin starred kitchen has given him great experience for his first role as Head Chef of a fine dining restaurant seeking to establish itself on the Monmouthshire culinary map. He has also been able to bring some other members of the old Crown team to the Llansantffraed kitchen with him to help create a formidable and experienced brigade.
This area of Monmouthshire has quite a few restaurants of note. Names such as The Hardwick, The Foxhunter, The Walnut Tree and The Bell have long been shouted out as reasons why people should make the foodie pilgrimage to the area. With food as competent as this coming out of the kitchen I suggest that they’ll soon be adding another restaurant to the list.
As for us! Well, so happy were we to be back eating great food in such a great location, that we decided shortly after our visit to book ourselves in for the most important meal of the year, Christmas Lunch. Do you really need a better recommendation than that?
LLANSANTFFRAED COURT COUNTRY HOUSE HOTEL & RESTAURANT
Clytha, Llanvihangel Gobion
Nr. Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
Wales NP7 9BA
We were invited to dine at Llansantffraed Court by their PR company and as such our food items were complementary.