Restaurants: From the sublime to the ridiculous
How can two restaurants, on the same site, with the same team in charge, be so different, asks Ben Rogers
Saturday 08 August 1998
Kit Chapman, proprietor of the Castle Hotel in Taunton, and Phil Vickery, his chef, are the two men behind this paradox. Chapman's family have owned the Castle - a solid, brass-and-mahogany establishment, right in the centre of the town - for 50 years, and Chapman has been in charge for 20. During that time he has made it a mission to "rekindle a greater interest in Britain's culinary heritage". He writes and broadcasts enthusiastically on the subject, and has worked hard at making the Castle's restaurant what it has become: one of the very best in the country. It was Chapman, together with Brian Turner, who more or less discovered Gary Rhodes, and when Rhodes left to go on to worse things, he did even better in appointing and cultivating Phil Vickery.
Most successful chefs have passed through one famous kitchen or another, but Vickery doesn't quite fit this mould. He learnt to cook in a series of discreet country hotels, a training that accounts, perhaps, for his quiet style and feel for the best traditions of English food. I recently ate lunch at the Castle and it was unusually good. There is nothing in the dining room, with its mint walls and tasselled drapes, to prepare one for the sensitive, rural cooking that emerges through the kitchen's swing doors. On this showing (and this was a Thursday lunch), Vickery can be placed with Fergus Henderson (St John) and Richard Corrigan (Lindsay House) in a small class of chefs reinventing the traditions of hearty British cooking.
It is hard to describe Vickery's efforts without making them sound gimmicky and nostalgic, which they aren't. He makes use of quintessentially English techniques, such as braising, pickling and potting; and employs old-fashioned ingredients, such as nutmeg, cloves and mace. He combines fruit with meat, cooks with local cheeses, and prefers mutton to lamb. Yet it's all done with a light, inventive, and unselfconscious touch. Unlike certain better- known chefs, he avoids themed versions of Great British Favourites: no "fresh cod in corn batter and beetroot fritters" or "cappuccino trifle" here.
I began with one of Vickery's "signature dishes", potted duck with spiced pears - a wonderful creation in which chunks of dense duck are packed into a rillette-like forcemeat and seasoned with mace, and sealed with a clarified parsley butter. The result is something both rough and smooth, rich and subtle. The terrine itself is vaguely French, but the pickled pears and the butter give the whole dish an English flavour.
For mains, I was tempted by both Vickery's highly acclaimed braised shoulder of lamb with thyme and garlic and sauteed fillet of brill with new potatoes, ruby chard and minted pea stew, but, in the end, plumped for roast scallops, with spinach and mashed potato and beautifully sweet baked tomatoes. A zesty caper and parsley mayonnaise and a scattering of deep-fried lovage leaves added a twist to what was otherwise a simple dish, enticingly arrayed and beautifully executed. The scallops were ambrosial.
Vickery's rich creamy desserts tend to have a 19th-century, West Country flavour. As with the savoury courses, the menu changes almost daily, but on the afternoon I was eating, options included baked custard tart with nutmeg ice-cream, lemon-curd mousse, and vanilla blancmange. Even my exotic- sounding baked mango cream had an old-fashioned flavour. Mango is over- used everywhere nowadays, but here, slow baked, and served with a sandy biscuit and pineapple water-ice, it tasted quite different: mellifluous, smooth, carnal. Like my first course, this was a memorable concoction.
And so, regretfully, to the other place. Chapman and Vickery have opened a large brasserie - Brazz - at the side of their hotel. The design is bright and slightly garish and the food cheap and "eclectic". Chapman has often insisted on the gastronomic importance of "geography, a sense of provenance and agricultural heritage", but here you can eat penne with pine nuts, spinach and shitake mushrooms, or beef burger with blue cheese dressing, chips and onion rings. Only the desserts - chocolate tart with clotted cream or honeycomb ice-cream and the like - have any sense of place.
It is not hard to see why Chapman opened Brazz: most large southern English towns have at least one big trendy brasserie like it (Brown's in Oxford paved the way) and they are always packed; the temptation must have been irresistible. What I don't understand, however, is why our Sunday lunch had to be so rotten. My mixed leaf salad came with a gungy tomato dressing, and my companion's potted shrimps had been potted not in butter, but in something like a sour cream-cheese, which, along with a heavy use of onion, entirely masked the taste of the shrimps. For main course we ordered chump of lamb with boulangere potatoes. This was a perfectly adequate, but bland dish, with a heavy gravy poured over everything. For no good reason, I decided to experiment with the desserts and ordered strawberry Romanoff. The result: soggy warm strawberries swimming in a soup of brandy and melted butter.
Doubtless our experience at Brazz was untypical. Yet however good the execution, the brasserie represents a sad failure of imagination. Perhaps it is going a little far to describe Vickery, as the Brazz blurb does, as "largely responsible for the renaissance of English gastronomy", but my meal at the Castle showed that he is not only a talented chef, but something rarer still - a sensible and sensitive one
The Castle Hotel, Castle Green, Taunton (01823 272671), all major cards, open seven days a week. The restaurant has two set price, three-course menus, at pounds 24 and pounds 34 per head, not including drinks, tip or coffee, so expect to pay between pounds 35-pounds 60 per head. Brazz, Castle Bow, Taunton (01823 252000), all major cards, open 7 days a week. First courses from pounds 3.95, mains from pounds 5.95.
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