Spending many years living in Wales has its charms. Beautiful expansive green fields with hedgerows breaking the landscape giving space for agriculture and quaint country rivers and creeks. But when it comes to food the odd bit of rarebit in the local pub doesn’t quite live up to the gastronomic heights of major city dining in London or Bangkok. One restaurant that does break the mould is The Walnut Tree Inn that has been a favourite with punters and critics in this part of the country since it first opened in the early 1960s. Located just outside of the picturesque town of Abergavenny and nestled beside the Brecon Beacons, The Walnut Tree Inn has been headed by Chef Shaun Hill since 2008. Chef Shaun serves classical French dishes using local Welsh produce, some of which grown in the restaurants own garden space that you can walk through when entering the restaurant. This approach to consistently high cooking and quality earned The Walnut Tree Inn a converted Michelin star back in 2010 that it still holds today.
On our visit we took advantage of the modestly priced lunch menu that allows dinners to enjoy two courses for £25, or three for £30 – we of course chose three courses. Lunch started with an amuse bouche of hake croquette with Asian flavours, heavy with coriander and served with lightly pickled and sweetened cucumber. A nice first bite to start the meal. Amuse bouche was brought to the table with a generous basket of baked breads, including slices of wholemeal cob with pumpkin seed and fluffy brioche buns. At this stage there’s always a worry of filling up on these delicious baked delights slathered with lashings of Welsh butter. To accompany our meal we chose a bottle of Pinot Grigio Quercus 2012 (Goriska Brda) from Slovenia. Crisp with good clarity, medium bodied and medium dry (priced at £22).
For starters we had chicken liver and foie gras parfait with brioche, a staple on any gastropub menu that can be a delight or a drama. On this occasion a delight. The parfait was silky smooth and creamy rich, and served alongside a tart quince jelly to cut through the fatty liver. Another starter of plaice with shrimp and dill croquette was both more attractive visually and to the palate. Perfectly cooked, juicy fillet of plaice set on top of leeks in a beurre blanc sauce and served with a croquette that punched with the flavours of potted brown shrimp.
To follow mains of confit duck leg with pig’s cheek and passion fruit sauce sounded intriguing for the passion fruit sauce alone. Nothing to complain about with tender and moist confit duck leg and pig’s cheek, the later smothered in a deep pork jus reduction that was slightly sweet and savoury perhaps from the use of Madeira wine. These slabs of protein were served alongside simple steamed green beans and a smooth suede and carrot puree. The passion fruit sauce added another dimension to the dish but altogether the plate felt like components that never really tied together as a complete plate of food.
Pollack with Jansson’s temptation was another mystery dish. One can only assume that Jansson is a member of Chef Shaun’s kitchen crew and was fortunate enough to create something of quality to grace the lunch menu. From memory (as this was not my main and I forgot to photograph) the pollack was served simply oven roasted and topped with slices of green olives, the dish was accompanied with a dauphinoise-style potato dish that used potato matchsticks instead of slices and a fumet (or fish stock) cream sauce for added taste. Pleasant enough but I’m afraid on this occasion Jansson probably wouldn’t tempt me back with his dauphinoise-fumet frankenstein.
Three dessert choices and three diners meant only one thing. All three for the middle of the table with spoons to dig in. Again nothing overly ambitious or groundbreaking on the dessert front but decent portions and gutsy, robust flavours made this a more than agreeable course. Desserts consisted of vanilla cheesecake with gooseberry compote, apricot streusel tart with vanilla ice cream and a summer fruit creme brûlée with shortcake biscuit. All balanced with just the right level of sweetness to leave you satisfied instead of sugar overloaded for the car journey home. It was nice to see the use of summer fruits from the garden in each of the desserts that added a lovely tartness to balance against the sweetness of each pudding.
Coffee was served with a mini chocolate brownie and chunk of in-house made fudge. Everything I said about balance of sweetness in the dessert course was completely undone with these sugary treats but I didn’t care. To find decent food at an affordable price in such a remote area of the country is worth the imminent sugar buzz that follows.
The Walnut Tree Inn isn’t a restaurant that pushes boundaries in terms of culinary modernism. You wont find any gels or foams or spheres of liquid that explode in the mouth (and half the time down your newly dry cleaned shirt), and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Chef Shaun Hill is cooking well presented plates of food using high quality, local produce in a style that lets the ingredients do the talking. Uncomplicated but delivered at a consistently high level that will get you visiting not just once a year but maybe even once a month. And with a menu that changes as regularly as the seasons it’s not a wonder I do end up visiting numerous times each year.
The Walnut Tree Inn – Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales (1 Michelin Star)