When another, local critic visited the River Café near Hay last year, he ventured the view on leaving that the food was ‘disgusting’. His remark was apparently in jest (although it did nothing for the stress levels of the chef) for when his review appeared he scored the restaurant four stars out of five.
There is plenty to be said for under-promising and over-delivering, which is what I suspect that critic was doing. Much better than vice versa, certainly. You can imagine the delight and relief in the kitchen when the review finally appeared – not least because they've framed the page and put it on a wall here. The difference with my visit is that if asked, I would lie and say it was great, even though it wasn't. I can't bear the awkwardness. "Disgusting" would have been stretching it; but "mediocre" would have been about right – at least where the food is concerned.
A bunch of us have come, one of those delegations from London via the annual book festival, which is such a mixed blessing to locals. It was like monsoon season this year, which made the festival feel like a soggy obstacle course, and put the lovely balcony on the River Wye at this restaurant out of bounds and comfort. Never mind: inside, you see, is snug. It has a clinical kindergarten feel, with big tables and white walls, open brickwork, and a blackboard on wheels which serves as the menu, possibly because printing all those sheets of paper would be an affront to the Welsh worldview.
This is fine, and even makes for some camaraderie. So, too, does a remarkably good Chenin Blanc, which they're charging us £16.95 for – the definition of a bargain in Britain, 2012.
The antipasti (£6.95) are excellent, too: rough cuts of strongly flavoured meat and a juicy bit of gherkin. These are among the "1st Bite" section of the menu, which in other places they call starters. Then there are "Pasta", "2nd Bite" and "Sides" as sections too.
Elsewhere on the starters, the scallop and chorizo salad (£7.75) is twice frustrating: the chorizo is oozingly greasy and rather dominates the poor scallops, which can't cope. There's also a goat's cheese and beetroot stack (£6.95) and, at lunchtime only, a ploughman's (£8.95). Of the mains, much the best is the Cornish crab papardelle (£13.50), which comes in a rich, buttery sauce with al dente pasta and as good an aroma as you could expect the south-west to muster.
The lasagne (£13.50), in contrast, is a raging disappointment. The mince mix is under-seasoned, with any tomato flavour lost in a red sea of bland; a white sea of under-powered bechamel compounds the error. The mangled sheets of pasta in between are too soft, little more than a starchy nuisance in fact, and the dish is unacceptably at the colder end of lukewarm.
There's also a goat's cheese and roasted red pepper tart (£13.50), a slightly bonkers but inoffensive Thai instalment of monkfish skewers with sesame capellini (a super-thin pasta, £18.50) and a local rib-eye steak (£19.50), which one of our number describes as fine but nothing to write to anyone about. The sweets include an excellent set of ice-creams and a good Vin Santo with cantuccini, and the fresh mint tea is intense and refreshing.
But my abiding feeling from this place is a very curious and rare one. It is such a lovely establishment. Glasbury Bridge on the Wye is one of the more bucolic and beautiful spots in the land; the service is exceptionally good, theinterior is just about right, and the prices (except for that monkfish) are reasonable. It's just, the food isn't delicious. If it is possible to have an excellent restaurant without delicious food, then I think I have found it. Do go, but maybe don't turn up hungry.
[The owner of the River Café near Hay has contacted us to say that the incident detailed in the report above took place some weeks after AA Gill’s visit. Moreover, the victim of the assault was not a member of staff. Update posted 4/7/12]
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The River Café, The banks of the River Wye, Glasbury-on-Wye, near Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, tel: 01497 847 007 Lunch and dinner, Weds-Sun; lunch, Sun. £120 for four, including two bottles of wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com
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