Fine Dining Guide was privileged to enjoy a special themed lunch – Tour des Grands-Meres – featuring the cuisine of (mainly) South West France. Hearty, rustic, nose to tail cooking, lovingly prepared, with bold flavours and generous portions, typify the dishes of this region. Simon Bonwick is able to replicate this, with great aplomb using classical techniques to showcase his carefully sourced ingredients.
This traditional home-style French cookery, lacking frills but not flavour, is increasingly difficult to find, given the faddish obsessions of contemporary cuisine. How refreshing not to encounter small portions decorated with smears, drizzles, foams, dots and the other superfluous elements which often show style over substance.
Well-seasoned sea trout rillettes combined the freshness of gently cooked and shredded fish with the richness of lard. Perched on spears of new season’s asparagus cooked al dente, this was a vibrant dish of strong and mild flavours with contrasting textures.
Next came a delicate foie gras parfait. Its smooth texture contrasted with the layer of lentils and crisp, diced green beans which covered it. These also acted as the perfect foil for the rich, buttery goose liver.
There followed the largest sweetbread – clearly a pancreas – I have ever seen, let alone eaten. This delectable piece of offal was accurately timed to produce a nicely seared crust and a creamy, melting interior. The gentle sweetness of braised carrots set off this heavenly dish perfectly.
Two long slow cooked meat dishes completed the savoury courses
Beouf Bourguignon was classically rendered, the slow braising producing tender, succulent meat. Being added at the last moment, the lardons, baby onions and mushrooms retained their individual identities and tastes whilst adding to the overall flavour of the dish. The addition of turned carrots and saffron infused potatoes added a retro touch which was totally in keeping with the spirit of the dish.
Finally, a cassoulet exemplified all the glories of South West gastronomy. Given the numerous variations of this dish, I was especially interested in Simon’s interpretation of this rich stew. Whilst haricots blanc and a gratinated top are integral to any version, his use of bone marrow – emerging from across cut veal shank – osso bucco style – added a novel richness and visual appeal to the dish.
A well-executed lemon tart with mango and rhubarb completed a memorable meal
Some days later, as I was happily recollecting the joys of the meal, I perused the menu. Sea Trout rillettes, Goose livers, Sweetbread, Bourguignon, Cassoulet, Barrier…Barrier? What’s that? Having sampled the first five, I could not recognise, let alone remember, the sixth. Was it an actual dish or a garnish?
My dining partner who had taken photos of the food had, I thought, missed this mysterious concoction. A variety of recipe books I flicked through were unhelpful. Nor was Larousse Gastronomique, the Bible of French gastronomy, much better. The only entry that came anywhere near was not a dish but a chef – Charles Barrier, who gained three Michelin stars in 1968 for his eponymous restaurant in Tours. Frustrated, there was only one course of action left – to phone the chef.
Simon Bonwick’s knowledge of the world of food is encyclopaedic. He loves sharing it with fellow diners, showing a real passion, laced with a dry sense of humour and sprinkled with a little eccentricity. All this makes his company delightful and endearing.
So, what was his explanation for Barrier? Firstly, I was relieved to learn it was a dish but we had not eaten it. Secondly, I was getting warm when I referenced Charles Barrier. Finally, he revealed that Barrier was his version of stuffed pig’s trotter – originally pied de porc farci de foie gras – a dish invented by Barrier which has been copied and adapted by top chefs ever since. And why was it still on the menu? Simply because staff from the Waterside Inn and The Fat Duck had consumed the lot the previous week – lucky them! – and Simon had forgotten to take it off the menu!
Never mind, we will look forward to when trotters are again on the menu. Meanwhile there is much to admire in his seasonally changing menu. Creedy Carver duck or Welsh mountain lamb testify to the importance of sourcing prime ingredients. Displayed on a blackboard, the mixture of French and English classics are playfully described: consider the intriguing Mr Farley’s idea for gradalax (sic) or “Highland” beef braised in the Burgundian way or treacle sponge “hot.” Prices are fair given the quality of the produce and the skill of the cooking.
Overall, The Crown remains a real gem amongst the mass of mediocre restaurants in the area. It deserves to be successful and Fine Dining Guide will continue to support it, watching its progress with interest.