The hardest thing in the restaurant world must be to take over a famous restaurant, particularly if you’re not a scion of the family who owns it and even then it’s tough. Comparisons are bound to be made with the previous, much-loved owner/chef/menu. The heyday when it was great.
So it must have been with The Walnut Tree at Llandewi Skirrid just outside Abergavenny, a restaurant which became iconic under the 38 year stewardship of Franco Taruschio and his wife Ann. It was Elizabeth David’s favourite restaurant, for goodness sake. People drooled - me included - about its menu especially the fabled Vincisgrassi, a wildly indulgent concoction of wild mushrooms, cream and truffles
It went through a bad batch after Franco left in 2001 and passed through 2 or 3 chefs including the talented Stephen Terry who didn’t quite make a go of it but is now successfully cooking at the nearby Hardwick. It even featured on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares - then went bust.
Now it has been given new stability by the owners of Angel hotel who wisely recruited Shaun Hill, a chef with a history and a following of his own. (At Gidleigh Park then The Merchant House at Ludlow.) He apparently never intended to end up behind the stove again but I guess he couldn’t resist the challenge. And it’s a credit to what he’s achieved that it feels as if he’s run it all his life.
It’s typical of Hill that the vincigrassi is not on the menu. No fake sentimentality for him and he’s clever enough to realise any version he could produce would always be compared unfavourably to Franco’s.
But the menu is as enticing as any I’ve seen this year with so much choice (9 dishes per course) that ordering sent us into a frenzy of indecision. His best dishes to my mind are fish: the two he is most famous for are scallops with lentils and coriander which featured in one of Delia’s books and monkfish with mustard sauce and cucumber both of which featured on the menu. (I tried only the scallops which were cracking.) My friend had the dish I probably should have ordered to follow - a sublime dish of turbot with clams and chive beurre blanc, delicate and perfectly cooked.
Other starters: deep-fried courgette flowers stuffed with moussey ricotta, basil and chilli a sunny antithesis to the downpour that was going on outside (it always seems to rain in Abergavenny); a well-flavoured plate of smoked eel with mackerel brandade, beetroot and apple and Robert Carrier's pat aux herbes which was on the set menu and which we had to order for its retro appeal. (It wasn’t quite set firmly enough.)
My husband was ecstatic about his copious portion of veal kidneys and black pudding with mustard sauce, a perfect match with a birthday bottle of elegant, silky 2006 Jean-Claude Boisset Chambolle Musigny which also took the intensely saffrony sauce with my guineafowl with spiced cauliflower and cromesqui (a sort of rissole) in its stride. An interesting pairing to note for the future.
We also put away the best part of a bottle of very well priced Domaine Thibert Macon-Fuiss (£26). (Hill knows his wine and is a burgundy fan)
By then we were so stuffed we had little room for pudding - let alone samloi “Hungary’s version of trifle with apricots, walnuts and rum” but managed to find room to share a stellar basil ice cream with nectarines and raspberries for which I must somehow get the recipe.
The only duff note - and we didn’t order it - was a cheeseboard made up entirely of French cheeses - Roquefort, St Marcellin, Ossau Iraty, Brillat Truff and Epoisses. Goodness knows why Hill needs to source his cheeses from France when we have so many good ones here. I’m sure he’d have a typically robust explanation but it seems inappropriate for a Welsh country inn.
Still it’s good to see the Walnut Tree in such good form and in such safe hands. Hill himself is no chicken and won’t want to stay behind the stove forever but he is the saviour of the Walnut Tree’s legacy and I would go and wallow in it while you can.
The Walnut Tree is at Llandewi Skirrid, Abergavenny NP7 8AW. Tel: 01873 852 797. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Although we ate la carte there’s a well-priced set lunch at £17.50 for two courses and £23 for three. They also have a couple of cottages to rent or you can stay in the nearby Angel Hotel (either well-advised if you’re planning an evening meal!)