When is a country pub a gastropub? There's a simple test. Turn up just before they close the kitchen and see what the welcome's like. At a Welsh pub with an unpronounceable name in Glasbury, we came into the bar and said, "Hi there, we'd like some dinner, please." "Sorry," said the barman. "Kitchen's closed, you see." "But the notice outside says you're serving dinner until 9pm and it's five to..." "That's right," said the barman, smiling grimly. "Kitchen's closed." Had he continued, "and the sooner you shag off back to London, the better for all of us," his meaning couldn't have been clearer.
A couple of miles down the road, a jolly-looking inn promised freshly-cooked "fare." Inside, an old couple were squabbling at the bar, small children tumbled on the polished floorboards, local drinkers sat (without any food) in quartets around small dining-tables, and an excessively homely pong of long-stewed frying-pan fat hung over the place. Even as the barrel-chested matron went off to fetch a list of available "fare," I had fled.
The third place had been strongly recommended by friends at the Hay-on-Wye Festival, but it was 9.15 when we got there. "Are you still serving?" I asked. The proprietor beamed, looked at his watch and murmured to a sidekick, "Would you ask chef to be so kind?" On learning that his colleague could indeed accommodate three festival-goers on a Tuesday night, he said. "Table 13. I'm afraid we're out of faggots, Although you can probably find one or two having a smoke outside." Now [itals] that,[italsoff] you see, is the way to do it.
Country pubs like Three Tuns that display genuine restaurant skills – of welcome, of a proper menu, of evidence that people enjoy eating there – are a godsend, not because they're simulacra of London gastropubs, [itals] God [italsoff] no, but because they run on personal enthusiasm and imagination. It's an old pub, dating back to the 17th century, and its stone walls and flagstones floors have spawned some slightly brutal modern extension work, but it's very popular. The back yard is full of al fresco drinkers and smokers. Inside, diners sit at oversized tables in three rooms on two floors and have to brave the gale from the open back door at throwing-out time. The menu features local livestock and produce (Welsh lamb, Hereford beef, local salmon and sea bass, Ragstone goat's cheese) that's subjected to wallops of Oriental spice, Mediterranean seasoning and American vaudeville until they dance an invigorated tarantelle on your tastebuds. Everything, from the friendly service to the posh rosemary bread, declares an enterprise that's striving to please and pamper you.
I started, a little suspiciously, with Thai-style moules: the mussels were small and runtish, but their immersion in red curry paste, coconut milk and coriander brought them to life; the resulting chilli-flavoured soup scoured the back of my throat very bracingly. Carolyn and Sue shared the smoked salmon, which was fine but came draped upon a stodgy lump of sweet-potato salad straight out of the fridge.
Main courses continued the theme of taking standard ingredients for a merry dance. My Aromatic Slow Roasted Shoulder of Pork with Pak Choi, Noodles and Oriental Spices was eccentric to a degree: noodles demand small diced portions of meat to be caught among their slithery folds, not serious slices of pork shoulder. But it worked here because the pork was so soft and moist it twined around the udon tendrils like an old friend. Carolyn's Steamed Fillet of Sea Bass came with a smoked-haddock mash that was truly smoky and delicious, and a white-wine-and-cream reduction that bathed it all in ambrosia. Sue's Guinness Glazed Leg of Welsh Spring Lamb was less successful; it had been sliced and layered in the approved "centre height" style with fresh thyme on top and crushed rosemary potatoes below, but was both overcooked and oversauced. "I thought this might be a wine reduction," said Sue, "but it's just gravy. This is essentially a nice Sunday roast, but I was expecting something a little different."
The homemade desserts, sexily arrayed on square black plates, featured a bouncy pannacotta with rhubarb compote (they'd clearly come to the last dregs of compote, but that was our fault for being late) and an Iced Nougat with raspberry sauce in which the sultanas and nuts and jammy raspberry sauce didn't quite combine in the angel chorus you hoped for. Still, as we finished the £16 bottle of Carmenere, we agreed that the Three Tuns was streets ahead of most gastropubs, in London or outside. "Just think," said my guests with feeling, "of how thrilled you'd be to find a place like this in the middle of nowhere." So you can imagine how good it was to discover it in a town of 30-odd second-hand bookshops, with the prospect, next day, of hearing Kathleen (Body Heat) Turner spilling the beans about her Hollywood life and indiscretions.
Three Tuns, Broad Street, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5DB (01497 821855)
About £95 for two with wine