Friday, 8 August 2014
The Old Spot, Wells
Surely, I thought, surely I couldn't score the full set with my meals in Dorset/Somerset. I was due at least one dud, one hapless gastropub serving frozen fishcakes and Argentinian steak; at least one sweet vodka cocktail served on the rocks in a martini glass; a cheeseboard boasting Port Salut, Edam and a cheddar studded with dried apricots. I mean I'd travelled all this way to have my prejudices about provincial restaurants confirmed so I could write the usual sighing, smug, faintly patronising London-centric post about how this part of the West Country was "well on its way" to being a foodie destination but "not quite there yet". Wouldn't somewhere give me what I wanted?
The Old Spot was my last shot, and all the pieces were in place. A high street restaurant in a pretty old honeypot town is a classic location for a mediocre tourist trap, and that's exactly what I expected to find here in the shadow of Wells cathedral. Outside, this ancient building was characterful and welcoming; inside, it had been carefully stripped of most of the period charm and felt a bit like when they carve out some ancient Tudor building in Chester for a depressing new branch of Zizzi's. "Aha, I've got their number" I thought. "Bring me your laminated menu and a large glass of Pinot Grigio and let's get this over with".
Except those stubborn people at the Old Spot refused to play ball. Our welcome was charming and personable but also sharply efficient, a level of practised confidence about every movement they made. The menu wasn't laminated, or boring, or confused; it contained 15 carefully-chosen crowd-pleasing modern British/European dishes, making a decision about which to go for rather difficult. And the wine list, dotted with charming informal notes, contained some genuinely surprising options for pre- and post- dinner drinks, such as local apple brandy, Eau de Vie, sherries and Pineau des Charantes. Bella Italia this was not.
And then the food arrived, and that was it - I was defeated. It was, all of it, quite lovely, not least the house bread from master boulanger Bertinet in Bath, an attention to detail that informed every part of the food offering at the Old Spot.
Fish hors d'ouevres was springy pickled onion, a wonderful rich tarama-style roe paste, a croquette of some sort (OK so there was a fish cake, but it wasn't frozen) and a little beetroot chutney thing. All fresh, interesting, enjoyable.
But while the fish starter had been solid and very pleasant rather than anything extraordinary, Gazpacho was a supreme example, and a delight to eat. The tomato mixture was a deep orange, with a flavour that matched, rich and ripe and hot with garlic. Texture came from delicate chunks of lightly fried bread, neither tooth-breaking nor soggy but perfectly in-between. And finally, colourful chunks of cucumber, shallots and torn herbs, no element overpowering, and not an ingredient too far or too few.
Fillet of salmon came with a golden crusty skin, faintly oily, flaky flesh and a shrimp-caper-butter sauce that contained all the correct features (salt, fat, sugar) to compliment this, the third beautifully-cooked bit of fish in as many days. Even something as ordinary as boiled spinach seemed better than usual; probably because it was soaked in shrimp butter.
Lovely tender slices of lamb leg, all pink and bordered with crunchy ribbons of fat, sat upon couscous studded with Merguez sausages and blobs of hot harissa. As with the other dishes, there was nothing here going to win any awards for innovation, or wild liberties taken with flash ingredients, just nice fresh food, cooked well, served with the minimum of fuss by people who knew what they were doing. And sometimes, that's more than enough.
The second crème brûlée of the weekend, vanilla cream under a satisfying toffee crust, provided a full stop to this, the final meal of the weekend and with heavy hearts (though that may have just been indigestion) we traipsed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and headed back to Yeovil Junction station. Much like that glorious weekend in Cornwall, the restaurants and hotels in Dorset and Somerset had dazzled with their generosity, amazed with their skill and pretty much smashed apart any lazy preconception I care to held about extra-M25 dining. But unlike the 7-hour travel commitment to get to Cornwall, Yeovil Junction and the glorious Little Barwick house is 2 1/2 hours from Battersea. The West Country, you have done yourselves proud. Now, where's next?
We were guests of The Old Spot restaurant, 12 Sadler St, Wells, Somerset BA5 2SE. We travelled to Yeovil Junction with South West Trains. For the best offers go to www.southwesttrains.co.uk. (Most) photos by Hannah.