South Wales report - good news for chowhounds
My partner and I spent the last 2 days near Cardiff, and enjoyed meals at the following:
Laguna Kitchen and Bar, Cardiff
Nags Head Inn (pub), Usk
Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny
Le Gallois, Cardiff
Laguna Kitchen was a very pleasant surprise. The food was very well-prepared, service very professional, and atmosphere airy, contemporary, and comfortable. 2 course lunch was 12 GBP and a bottle of a decent Spanish red was 14.50. We had risotto with smoked chicken and horseradish, antipasto consisting of several good meats, artichoke, pepper stuffed with goat cheese, and deviled quail egg, then braised brisket with wild mushroom sauce, and whole grilled plaice with homemade tartar sauce. All were delicious, portions very generous. Espresso was served with small biscuits and a small glass of sparkling water.
Nags Head, located in a very charming village, was worth the half hour drive
from Cardiff. Large portions of interesting food in a warm and cozy pub. The owner is very friendly and hospitable. We started with grilled sardines and a cheese soup with leeks and onion, continued to guinea fowl with fig sauce and a brace of quail stuffed with (apples?) and finished with strawberries with cream, meringue and ice cream, and roasted banana with brandy sauce. My only gripe is that they boil the vegetables so they are rather bland and soggy, a little more imaginative preparation or at least steaming rather than boiling would be so much better. Prices are quite reasonable and the ambience is warm and cozy, with upscale touches like candles on tables and cloth napkins.
The Walnut Tree would be worth a trip from just about anywhere. The chef, Shaun Hill, had a Michelin star at the now defunct Merchant House in Ludlow, England. Judging from the food here, I would expect one to be awarded here too. The simple but delicious canapés of cheese biscuits with sesame seeds and cheese wrapped in phyllo and sprinkled with parmesan were a nice beginning, and the breads were outstanding. Starters of crab cakes with chopped tomato and calf’s brains with the classic black butter and capers were perfectly executed. The brains were almost ethereal in their lightness. Main courses of wild duck with morels and stuffed partridge with a wonderful potato gratin were exceptionally flavorful. Desserts of roast figs with gingerbread, lavender honey and ice cream, andraspberry streusel with fresh raspberries and jersey cream were both irresistible. Prices are reasonable considering the quality. The total bill was just over 90 GBP including a 19.50 bottle of Argentine Malbec which was full and rich and went very well with the food. A couple of pieces of superb fudge, chocolate and butterscotch, were served with coffee. I wish I could eat here all the time.
Le Gallois is considered by many to be the best restaurant in Cardiff, and we were very impressed too. The food quality was very similar to the Walnut Tree, but was a bit more French in style. Dishes were beautifully presented, and service was extremely attentive. Pickled vegetables were served as canapés with our aperitifs, an amuse of cauliflower soup with green curry came next, we both had pig’s head terrine for starters, main courses were turbot with an intense watercress sauce, pureed potatoes with leeks, and oyster mushrooms, and pintade (guinea fowl) with mushroom sauce and julienne of vegetables. Desserts were cream cheese cake with ice cream and pain d’epice, and blueberry savarin with tea sauce and poached blueberries.
We were more than satisfied with the dining options in South Wales, and thank the Chowhounds who helped with recommendations.
We stayed in Abergavenny recently - the Angel Hotel is a very comfortable base, and the food's not to be sniffed at either. We also ate at the Walnut Tree and were really overwhelmed by the quality of the food and the wonderful service. I last ate Mr Hill's food many years ago, when he was at Gidleigh Park, and good as that was, I think his cooking, on the basis of the evidence from our meal, is now even better. I had the duck with morels, which was a total delight (I think it was on the Merchant House menu) - and my partner's scallops were perfectly cooked, beautifully flavoured and presented - simple cooking, but so often fluffed in other places). But what was so striking about our experience, in contrast to so many places we've eaten with a "reputation" is the attention to detail, the highly professional but friendly service, and above all else the personal imprint of the "Chef Patron". Probably the best dining experience we've had in the UK, certainly this year.
BTW, if you're not local, we can recommend staying in their cottage overnight - aside from the obvious advantage of not worrying about having a glass or three - it's very comfortable, immaculately clean, and the little treats left in the fridge to make your own breakfast are just what the doctor ordered after the previous night's blow out.
In contrast, the Hardwick where we ate a couple of nights previously was a total disappointment. Turns out the chef was away, and I hope it was only his absence that caused the endless waits for service (in a not full dining room), the missing side dishes promised on the menu, and the insipid flavouring of almost everything we ate. Certainly the food and service came nowhere near the menu's aspirational pricing... I can only caution readers to check the chef's on site before you head out there :(
Now back (and somewhat recovered) from our trip to Wales. We had a wonderful time, and I couldn't get over how friendly the people are and how beautiful the southern coast is. We found most of the pub food surprisingly good and a lot more interesting than I was expecting.
Thanks to rrems we tried the Nags Head in Usk. This was a huge hit. We both started with the cheddar and leek soup which was wonderful. My husband then got a rabbit pie, which may well be the best thing I tasted on our whole trip. I went with haddock and chips (sharing with Lulu, our first day and I had promised her fish and chips). Also very good. Entrees come with lots of fresh vegetables - broccoli, turnips and carrots. We were very happy with our meal.
Our experience at Laguna Kitchen (Cardiff), unfortunately, was not as good as rrems. Tons of people were working there, and the room was at least half empty, but the service was as slow as molasses in January. Before we'd even been seated they asked what we'd like to drink, and not having had a chance to look at the wine list yet we said we weren't quite ready to order. So we waited and waited and waited ... probably 10 minutes, until the person came back and took our drink orders. Bread took another 10 minutes. After we'd finished the bread someone finally came over to take our order. It sort of became funny, watching servers running around but not actually accomplishing anything. So ... the food. I started with a salad, and something just wasn't right with it. I gave it to my husband, and he agreed but ate it anyway. His starter was gnocchi with wild mushrooms, and it was delicious. He then got local sea bass with chorizo and squid - apparently every component of this was overcooked. He liked the basic flavor but was disappointed with the cooking. I got butternut squash with sage butter - a perfectly nice rendition (they brought the wrong entree the first time and had to rush to make this). We had a very lovely bottle of bordeaux at a great price (something like 25 pounds?). It is a really nice room, and the menu is nice, but for us the dinner was not a big success - still we had a lot of fun.
After a visit to Pembroke Castle we stopped in at a pub down the street called The King's Arms and had a surprisingly nice lunch. I got a local cheese (something like Pawn Myr? - sorry, lost my notes along the way) slightly heated with sliced almonds and chutney, served along with a simple salad. Husband got toasted cheese and onion sandwich, and Lulu got fish and chips. The best chips of the trip. As I say, this was a very simple meal, but the quality of everything in it stood out, so I figured I'd mention it.
Thanks to rrems for his detailed report.