Food & Drink: A castle built in the air: Emily Green discovers that the Castle Hotel offers an excellent wine list, but does not have a menu to match it

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Visitors might end up at the Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, for any number of reasons. They might use a Michelin guide, in which its dining room has one star. They might use The Good Food Guide 1994, which gives it the exceptionally high rating of four out of five. They might have bought a big glossy tome called Great British Chefs by the owner, Kit Chapman (he included his own chef). They might even have heard of the 350-year-old wistaria clinging to the front of the building. One thing, however, is certain: they would not have read a recommendation for the food written by me.

Mr Chapman has made something of a career these past seven or so years of promoting traditional English cooking, and has incorporated some suitably earthy dishes, such as oxtail and faggots, in the lunchtime menu. According to a colleague, the menu for dinner becomes more international.

Promoting the historic theme took audacity and hard work. Mr Chapman, to employ media-speak, did some telly, did a book and did a great deal of networking among food writers. I resisted until last week, when a friend suggested we eat there and it occurred to me that the cold snap might induce an appetite for Olde English Fayre.

Orders are taken in the lounge from a choice of set-price menus: from pounds 14.50 for two courses to pounds 29.90 for four. This would be good value for good food. We chose 'terrine of spicy sausages and black pudding with salads and split pea vinaigrette', 'baked crab tart', 'braised beef with horseradish dumplings, carrots and creamed potatoes' and 'roasted saddle of venison with cracked black peppercorns'.

The good news was the crab tart, which tasted of crab and saffron and was topped with a light, perfectly judged sabayon. Perfectly pleasant news was the venison, which was OK. It was lightly hung, so as to taste almost sweet, and cooked rare.

The bad news was the rest. The terrine tasted of nothing so much as chorizo; the predominant texture was grease. The braised beef was not melting, nor could it be blamed for resisting the over-reduced sticky sauce. As for the dumpling, it did not taste of horseradish and should have been doing service on a tennis court. A side-dish of mash was glutinous.

The chef's 'selected desserts' was a plate of samplers. Among them was some sort of dry nut pie; a little pile of chocolate with something creamy and something limey; yet another blob was rich and creamy, heavily emulsified and tasted of almond extract, and then there was more of something creamy on top of clotted cream.

Our wines, however, were excellent. My friend and I struck a deal: I would buy the food and he the wine. I got the better deal, by far. He came up with a stream of goodies, from cheap to lavishly expensive, from a big heavy list which concentrates mainly on France. Italy, for example, gets a page at the back.

We started with a delicious, floral tokay pinot gris, fairly priced at pounds 15.95. To follow, we had a half of chablis - proper, fruity but clean stuff, made without oak. The real treat was an exquisite Rhone and a great vintage: a 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet. It was rude to look up the price, but irresistible. At pounds 134.45, it hardly seemed cheap, but I am assured it was cheap as 1961 La Chapelles go.

Bargain or otherwise, the dining-room should have had the wit to offer to decant it. When asked to do so, the young waiter serving the wine was asked by my companion if he had tasted it. He nodded. What had he thought? The boy shook his head sadly: 'Bit past it, I'd say, sir.' Also a bit wrong. It was delicious.

Coffee is served back in the lounge. The waiter cheerfully replaced a noticeably chipped cup when asked; it should be stressed that the staff are kindness itself, but they just do not seem to know what their jobs are about.

Castle Hotel, Castle Green, Taunton, Somerset (0823 272671). Set-price lunches from pounds 14.50 to pounds 29.90, dinners from pounds 18.90 to pounds 29.90. No smoking in dining room. Open daily, lunch and dinner. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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