I have this fond but utterly unscientific theory that the more effort it takes to get to a restaurant, the better the food will taste when I get there.
This, of course, is nonsense. High expectations are just there to be dashed, and were, especially at one of this area’s biggest starry ‘names’ the very same weekend. However, any restaurant you approach through country lanes, their langorous sweep broadening into a vista of patchworked greens, a quilt assembled by giant hands, does automatically feel more nourishing than the slow, soul-sapping spiral upward to level 6 of some multi-storey.
It takes some effort to find Restaurant 1861, this converted Victorian pub in the hamlet of Cross Ash. It’s easy to feel at home in this place. It’s all rather rustic and country-cosy, with husband and wife team Simon and Kate King in charge, pictures of their children on the walls and a stream of regulars greeted by name.
Some background: after beginning his career with a three-year stint with the Roux brothers at the 3 Michelin-starred Waterside Inn at Bray, Simon moved on to become Martin Blunos’ right hand man at the renowned 2 Michelin star Lettonie of Bristol and Bath. A move to Wales resulted in the couple meeting at Llansantffraed Hall, (another impressive local kitchen, reviewed here.)
I’m soon at my ease, though. I know I’m in safe hands as soon as the bread arrives. The clues are all there in the menu- it reads like it was written by a person of generous appetite- but it’s a hunch confirmed by the bread. It arrives as a whole loaf, still warm, to be cut at the table. Dainty little slices or thick tranches, it’s up to you- and I know some may well not like this, because it does get messy- but it drops broad hints at the good things to come. Mrs King cheerfully tells us this welcome touch “is born out of my husband’s greed”.
And these, surely, must be some of the most reassuring words you can hear in a restaurant.
It’s a quiet lunch time, the sort of day you can’t help overhearing others’ enthusiasm for the scallop lasagne, or the pair of old girls on the other table, true bonne vivantes, discussing a recent trip to Casamia. I hope I’ve still got that appetite for life at their age, on the off chance I’m still around. Ladies, I raise my glass to you.
This meal put me in an immensely good mood. This in itself is an achievement.
There are little teasers, trailers for the main feature, in the form of deep fried bonbons of pumpkin risotto and some ethically produced foie gras.
A scallop boudin is a lovely thing, delicate flesh in a creamy sauce, the sweetness of tomatoes keeping it light and lending a little acidity while letting the subtle flavours of the seafood come through.
A fish soup is the result of some serious stockpot diligence, patient hours repaid. The croutons are mere vehicles for the huge waft of garlic in the light, airy rouille, a deceptively- and delicately- brutal hit of garlic and the anise tickle of fennel. And who doesn’t enjoy one of those?
Sea bream is perfectly cooked- perfect is a heavy word, and should not be lightly thrown, but I have no other in this instance- and speckled with braised winkles for a meaty note. It’s not presented artfully, but as a plate of thing you want to eat. It’s not ‘Insta-friendly’ or whatever guff people are supposed to care about.
Broccoli soup is a lovely thing, light and beautifully seasoned, lent a level of luxuriousness by a lump of goats cheese which slowly oozes into the thing as you eat.
Sweet tartness or tart sweetness? Either will do with the pickled cherries cutting through the hefty savouriness of the leg meat, a tangle of tender confit flesh. It’s a hearty plateful, gutsy cooking served to satisfy, from the home-cured duck ham- mellow yet tangily meaty- to the richer leg.
Trio of game: confit leg of partridge (slightly over-seasoned for my taste, but impeccably tender), a medium rare venison loin, pink and delicate, and a gamey, delicately funky little pheasant faggot, finely minced, with a sauce of real clarity delivering huge flavour. Sweet but full-bodied, judiciously portioned to avoid dominating everything else on the plate. It’s the kind of dish you’ll remember while leaving work and walking towards the car on a dark, wet winter’s evening, the sort of image which wraps you in its arms even as you hurry through the damp that threatens to seep into your bones.
At lunch I double down: three ways with venison. Drenched in a sticky jus, the loin is a rich ruby. Another faggot with an unmistakable ferric tang, the braised shoulder gamier, and all accompanied by a pease pudding: it’s another plate of country pleasures (no, not those ones, fans of Donne).
Beef in red wine continues the theme. By now I know what to expect: low on fuss and frippery, but patient cooking which satisfies. The vegetable are no afterthought, assembled with thought as of texture and seasonality and grown Kate’s father’s nursery in nearby Nantyderry.
This is good hearty countryside cooking, combining classical French techniques with the best local produce. Some recent experiences lead me to conclude these last two words have sometimes become hijacked by the unscrupulous. They have become cheapened, thrown around like so much tawdry confetti, by anyone hoping to cash in on social media-friendly buzz words.
Ice creams are all made here (naturally); from a substantial list. The dark chocolate is unashamedly luxurious with dairy fats, thick and bitter-sweet, rum and raisin is satisfyingly boozy. I was told Chef’s children are always disappointed with what passes for chocolate ice cream when eating out, and you can easily see why: this stuff has a chew to it, the kind of thing which tells you this is the good stuff.
Tips here (the staff are charming) are cash only on principle: another small but telling detail.
Proper hearty rural cooking. It’s refined in its techniques rather than in its flounciness, just presenting good ingredients well for people who actually enjoy eating.
1861 offers a generous spread of menus, from tasting menus to bespoke vegan. These were some amiable meals with some very sound cooking: the word terroir is thrown around by wine lovers, but it feels right for the food at 1861, with many vegetables coming from Kate’s father’s nursery in nearby Nantyderry.being grown by family nearby, and foraging a priority.
The plot of land next to the house is being earmarked for some accommodation. This would be an excellent base from which to explore the area: this is certainly some of the better cooking in the area, and well worth a meander through those lanes. Restaurant 1861 had eluded me for too long. Based on my meals here, this is certainly somewhere which deserves to be on your list.
Not finicky and metropolitan, more gutsy and outdoorsy. You might term it ‘No bullshit’ cooking. Signing up to their mailing list is an excellent way to take advantage of many offers.
Simon King’s cooking doesn’t get nearly enough mention, despite praise from The Good Food Guide. And there’s much to like here. If you believe seasonality and foraging and local sourcing- a connection to place and time- are important, then 1861 is where you’ll feel at home.
0845 388 1861
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.