Have you read Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential? Right at the start he describes how as a child he’d eat anything. By anything I’m not talking about lumps of coal or bits of wood but anything edible that nearly all children and most adults would shy away from, you know things like raw oysters or roasted yak gizzard. As a child I, on the other hand, would only eat beans on toast and only then if the beans were made by someone with 57 varieties. I never quite realised what a nightmare this must have been for my parents when we were out and about and although I grew out of it after a year or so there were still a few other food taboos; I was well into my teens before I could put the white of an egg in my mouth without gagging, for instance.
I can’t remember when things changed but thanks to parents, who had grown up with rationing, today’s “eating nose to tail” movement is old hat to someone who fondly remembers the joys of fried liver, devilled kidneys, stuffed hearts and the like. So by the time I was able to drive myself to restaurants I had conquered my food phobia’s and was pretty much up for trying anything once. There are still things I don’t eat but these days that’s either because I simply don’t like the taste (celery, liquorice, celeriac) or it just doesn’t do it for me (prawns, welks and the like).
Now my friend T is different, he didn’t manage to break away from those early hangups so the list of don’t eats is still long. Basically he doesn’t eat fish (of any kind), venison, duck, offal, páte, vegetables, wait let me stop there and come at this from the other side it’ll be quicker. T eats beef, lamb, pork and occasionally chicken, these meats need to come in the regular cuts like fillet, sirloin, rack etc. He eats potatoes and he eats peas. That’s about it really, until you get to desserts, which are pretty much all good, especially if they contain chocolate. A man of simple tastes you might say, but a man of simple tastes that likes dinning out.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well because dinner with T requires advance notice of the menu. You see as I’ve said T likes dining out, as do I, but there’s no point going to places where the menu is going to be a cross between a sushi bar and a “creative uses of innards” competition. So when T called and offered to take myself and MrsA out for belated birthday celebrations in her honour, I found myself in that dilemma of wanting to try something new but knowing I needed, if not a more traditional menu, then at least one with plenty of choice. Where to go?
Until recently I’d always thought of Llansantffraed Court Hotel as primarily a wedding venue as opposed to somewhere to go for dinner, but then I’d run into @chefbennett01 on Twitter and discovered they were just as happy to feed two as two hundred. So after one phone call, a few quick tweets and a hasty rearranging of his schedule we were booked in and chef was in the kitchen.
The first thing you notice about the place is the absolutely stunning location. Set in 20 acres of private park land with it’s own lake and fountains, this Grade 2 Listed building has been a hotel since the 1920’s and boasts 21 rooms all with excellent views, says its website. “Enough!”, I hear you cry. “Get back to the food and the point of that long, rambling introduction.”
OK back to the plot! So my heart sank a little when, sitting on the terrace enjoying an aperitif, Chef appeared to tell us that, seeing as it was a bit of a special occasion (MrsA’s belated birthday remember?), as well as the normal dinner menu he’d put together a little tasting menu for us, if we were so inclined. We were of course under no obligation but if we did, it would obviously work better if we all had the same thing. Hence my dismay! One quick look at this menu told me there was no way T was going to be happy eating most of the courses. An opinion that was reinforced by the expression on T’s face! However Chef promised he could provide one set of plates that contained no fish and T magnanimously agreed to come along for the ride. A big thank you for that T, as I know there was a lot more on that menu that you wouldn’t have ordered in a million years given the choice!
We started with Madgetts farm duck ‘jambon, squash and rillettes cannelloni. The surprise here was the complete lack of pasta, it’s place in the cannelloni actually being taken by the squash, which was cut thin and served raw, introducing an interesting crunch of texture.
The next course was seared mackerel, mirin pickled cucumber, mackerel mousse, truffle and honey and soy dressing. I was a little worried about this dish, because I felt the mousse had the potential for disaster and I was also concerned how the honey was going to work with such an oily fish. I needn’t have been either worried or concerned. The mousse was light and delicate and the dressing had just enough acidity to cut through the oiliness of the fish, producing a wonderfully balanced dish.
Forty eight hour pork belly, anchovy beignet, bread sauce, beer cured onions came next. Now belly pork, in my opinion, needs the crunch of good salty crackling and cooking sous-vide does not for crackling make. So maybe you could ‘cheat’ and prepare your crackling separately or maybe you could serve anchovies instead? Yes anchovies! “Don’t they go with lamb and not pork” you ask? Well I thought so too, but not in Chef Bennett’s kitchen! There they are turned in anchovy beignet and if you were expecting that to be a bit like the topping on a deep fried pizza you couldn’t be further from the truth. Surprisingly they work very well with the pork and in beignet form they provide a nice salty crunch that makes up for the lack of traditional crackling. The skill of course is in ensuring that they don’t overpower the pork and here they managed only to enhance the flavour and not kill it.
We moved on to caramelized scallop, pickled calf’s tongue, soubise. Consider your average surf and turf, this will usually be steak and lobster. Even if you subscribe to the philosophy that the concept is purely to put the two most expensive things on the same plate then at least those things can hold their own in the flavour stakes. It takes a brave man to take something as delicate as a scallop and consider putting beef with it. It takes a very brave man to take a part of the cow where the flavour is intensified and put that with a scallop. I’m not sure I want to describe what sort of man pickles that part of the cow first and then puts it with a scallop! The description of the man that does that and pulls it off is Steve Bennett!
Next up twice cooked Bryn Derw farm free range chicken, confit celeriac, girolles, asparagus, tarragon. There are two things on this plate I would never order in a restaurant. The first is the celeriac. I hate celeriac! The second the chicken, but now only because I know that MrsA can and does cook up a fine chicken so what’s the point in paying for it in a restaurant? So I asked MrsA what she thought of the dish. She thought the quality of the chicken was outstanding. The cooking technique enhanced the quality of the chicken as it was moist and very tasty, the confit and girolles complementing the delicate flavour of the chicken. An excellent dish she said and who am I to argue, I even ate the celeriac!
First of the desert selection was rhubarb ‘cheesecake’, sorbet, pistachios. A nice balance between the tang of the rhubarb and the smooth creaminess of the cheesecake. The pistachios cleverly re-introducing the crunch normally provided by the biscuit base and the sorbet cleansing the palate with every mouthful.
Last of the sweet courses was bitter chocolate mousse, popcorn jelly, gold, Baileys ‘shake’. The popcorn jelly was the surprise here, not what was expected. The texture was definitely jelly but instead of a traditional sweet jelly, here we we had a salty one. This might have sent me running for the hills if it were not for the fact that it worked so well with the bitter chocolate mousse. This was a great fun dessert and it was nice to see our chef has a sense of humour.
We closed our evening off with a cheese board with a good selection of welsh cheeses followed by coffee and homemade petit fours.
There is some debate amongst my friends about “Tasting Menus”. Some feel they are an over indulgence that should be avoided. I, on the other hand, find them intriguing. Especially when I’m eating some where for the first time. I like the Tasting Menu because the chef is basically saying “I’m going off on a journey, do you want to come along for the ride and see what I can do?”
Tonight @chefbennett01 took us on a journey and it was a bit of a magical mystery tour around the ingredient cupboard. Combining flavours in unusual and interesting ways is something he obviously excels at. I was impressed by his ability to balance flavours and how he recreated the traditional elements of dishes by highlighting the tastes and textures of non-traditional combinations.
There are not many places where I would be happy to eat anything made of celeriac, but this is one. Even T, who it must be said took a few fish free detours to get to his destination, discovered that there were a few more parts of an animal that were edible, a few more taste combinations that were palatable and also that there were a few tasty vegetables besides the pea.
The Abergavenny Food Triangle has become a bit of a foodie destination due to a few well know eateries and their equally well known chefs. I think Llansandffraed Court Hotel with Steve Bennet in the kitchen can hold it’s own with the rest of them. ‘Nuff said!