Last weekend, Jon and I returned to Wales, and this time, we drove up and dragged along three friends. Of course, none of us are UK natives, so you have to picture five otherwise capable adults trying to figure out how to drive on the left without swiping cars in neighboring lanes.
Oh, and it turns out weekend traffic fleeing the city is not just a NY-DC thing, so what should have been a 2.5-hour drive to Cardiff turned into a 5-hour one.
The snazzy rest stops along the M4 made the trip a lot easier, though. Sure, they’re unvarying (Burger King, M&S, Upper Crust, WH Smith), but the ones we hit were also uniformly clean and modern. Thumbs up to highway-related infrastructure between London and Cardiff.
But back to restaurants in south Wales. Although the five of us didn’t dine out much last weekend, I’m reminded to share a few thoughts on better-known area restaurants Jon and I tried during our trip in late August. Generally, we were unimpressed by the food we had in Cardiff (think big chains – mid-range and low-end), but once we drove out to the surrounding areas, we found restaurants serving well-prepared meals made from locally-sourced ingredients.
Molecular gastronomy? Not in south Wales. But after hiking the rugged Welsh hills all day, I could think of nothing better than, say, a perfectly-rare and juicy rack of lamb.
The Foxhunter gastropub in Nantyderry (located in the eastern part of Brecon Beacons national park, near the bustling metropolises of Usk and Abergavenny) was excellent in all ways: decor, service and food.
The decor is rustic in a Pottery Barn-comfortable way: dark, polished wood furniture accessorized with hurricane vases, pillar candles and cream curtains. The service was friendly and attentive (note that in Wales, you’re first shown to the bar for a drink even if you’re table’s ready, and when you indicate you’re done with your aperitif, only then are you shown to your table).
The Foxhunter’s menu offered fresh, local produce prepared with a light Mediterranean influence. There was nothing mind-bendingly creative for dinner, but this is the country life, writ fancy. The high quality of the ingredients was the star feature at the Foxhunter.
We knew we were in for a treat when our meal started with warm, fresh-baked focaccia and fluffy, yeasty rolls. The latter was served so warm that after I cracked open the crust, the rich, creamy butter I dabbed (OK, fine, smeared) on melted instantly.
Jon’s fried courgette blossoms stuffed with ricotta was out of this world. The batter coating was thin and crispy, and the ricotta was melt-in-your-mouth creamy. I think it’s the best fried courgette blossoms we’ve ever had, and we have quite a sample size to draw from, I assure you.
My shrimp and scallops were the one disappointment of my meal. The diavolo sauce was excellent – sweet tomatoes with a spicy finish – but the shrimp and scallops were overcooked to slight toughness, and whatever flavour was left was masked by the strong sauce. It was obvious I should have gotten courgette blossoms!
Jon’s whole lobster was small, but he couldn’t resist ordering it because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen lobster on a menu. Lobsters apparently live in the waters around south Wales. (They are otherwise tres American, did you know?) In any event, though small, the lobster was super juicy and sweet, and Jon was careful to clean out every last bit on his plate. We may have imagined it, but I think there were a lot of envious eyes on Jon’s lobster that night.
My rack of lamb was outstanding, though sadly, it hadn’t been trimmed, so even I and my gluttonous ways had to admit defeat and trim off some of the 2” layer of fat on each piece. Still, excellent lamb.
Appetizers were £8-10, and mains were £15-25. It’s pricey, especially for the area, but worth it. Definitely stop by the Foxhunter when in Brecon Beacons, or just south Wales, generally.
During our day by the seaside on the Gower peninsula, we had dinner at the Fairy Hill restaurant. I was a little disappointed that in the evening, it was too chilly to dine out on the restaurant’s pretty terrace, but in summertime, definitely go for that option.
The food at Fairy Hill was good, but I’d make way more effort to stop by the Foxhunter before returning to Fairy Hill. I think Fairy Hill is in its faded glory phase. The menu was more ambitious than at the Foxhunter, and the decor had a “we’re the fancy restaurant in town” look circa 1990, but the food had its high notes still.
For example, our meal started with amuses bouche. An elegant thought, but most of them were stale, so really, the restaurant shouldn’t have bothered. Other than the cheese beignets, which were served hot, at least, the salmon and the foie gras both tasted like they’d been hanging out in the fridge all day on old bread, and serving the amuses on a napkin heightened the sense of non-freshness as all of them were a little stuck to the napkin.
The sun-dried tomato bread was crumbly and buttery. Almost cakelike. I’m no sun-dried tomato fan (for no other reason than that it seems totally 80s, which I suppose means I need to work past the idea of trendy vs. unfashionable food), but in the bread, the sweet tanginess of the sun-dried tomato was the icing on the cakelike bread.
My scallops appetiser was a high note of the meal. Very tender and sweet. I was so relieved it wasn’t overcooked. (You never know what might happen in the benighted countryside!) The wrong note was the mango-and-red-pepper salsa that accompanied the scallops. It was totally unnecessary and too sweet.
Jon’s baby dover sole appetiser was buttery and tender, which is why I left with the impression that the appetizers at Fairy Hill are worthwhile, and the main courses respectable enough. (Jon’s sea bass and my roast chicken were both good, but we could probably cook the same at home).
The menu was either £30 prix fixe for two courses or £40 for three. Our tab was about £100, which included wine. I’d go back if I were in the Gower during the summer and could eat outdoors. Otherwise, next time I’m in the Gower, I’ll probably try another place, particularly because it’s a 1.5-hour drive to the resto from Cardiff.