But there's another reason for visiting The Checkers, one that makes this not just a visit of curiosity, but one to be relished: the chef's pedigree. While any chef that has done even a two day stage at The Fat Duck now sees it headline their CV, there's another restaurant in Bray, one that we totally adore, and one that equally demands the highest standards of their staff: The Waterside Inn. Holding three Michelin stars for 27 years, accepting what they seek to do, classic French cooking, the food there is perfect. Stephane Borie, the chef co-owner of The Checkers, spent seven years at The Waterside, that's impressive.
Nor does it end there. The tag line for the restaurant is The Frenchman and the Farmer's Daughters, with the 'daughters' referred to here being sisters Sarah and Kathryn. Sarah, also Stephane's wife, was the first woman to work in every section in The Waterside's kitchen (where she and Stephane met) and at The Checkers, she continues to oversee Pastry. Kathryn meanwhile runs the front of house. This is a seriously talented family team then; I simply had to visit.
Located in the small Welsh town of Montgomery, The Checkers is a restaurant with rooms, situated in a historical timber clad building, quirkily next door to a fish and chip shop. Being, as noted, very much a small family business, this is a restaurant where almost all of your interaction will be with one of the owners, and it creates a lovely, friendly environment with people who care. With my visit this week clearly out of season, the restaurant was still well frequented and locals clearly appreciate this relatively new restaurant, for to eat food of this quality would otherwise require a journey of considerable miles.
To cut to the chase, it should be busy for it is probably the best restaurant in Wales in my opinion. The food here is cooked with technical perfection, and eating poached Dover sole, it was so divine that if I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself back at the three star Waterside, it simply could not be faulted. Menus offer good choice across price ranges including an a la carte and a choice of a six or nine course tasting menu. I opted for the six course menu giving up pan fried foie gras, fillet of beef, and a lemon crème brulee versus the nine course. I did however, though the quirk of being a lone diner, get a small extra in the form of a taste of the pork main course.
The kitchen at The Checkers has stayed true to its classical roots and the plates when they arrive, in both looks and content, have Waterside Inn written all over them (clearly by now you know that I say that as a major positive). A garden pea veloute to start has a silky smooth texture, good flavour assisted with a little smoked bacon, and a few whole peas at the bottom that give additional pop when they find their way onto your spoon. Only on the scallop dish is a little short of the mark, but here it's an ingredient fail as two small scallops lack sweetness such that the acidity from the apple and cider has no real foil; it's a minor point in an otherwise perfect meal. The sole, as noted, is the highlight of the night, maybe even the week, while my little pork sampler delivers textbook belly with perfect crisp along the top and I'm left wishing for more.
My 'main' course is lamb, normally a dish for two but today, a second lone diner in the restaurant threw up the opportunity to sample it, so why not. Again it's faultless but the confit neck stuffed into the saddle is stand out. A beautiful Grand Marnier souffle finishes up the meal, with the intensity of the Grand Marnier so well judged, lesser talents too often overplay it here with a splash too far for kick. The souffle comes with a kitchen made vanilla ice cream that is indulgently creamy but alive with vanilla, better than anything I can ever remember buying from a shop.
The Checkers is one of those perfect little restaurants that occasionally pop up in the middle of nowhere (sorry Montgomery). But as seen with L'enclume in Cartmel, Sat Bains under an electricity pylon in Nottingham and Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, outposts of culinary excellence not only arise in unexpected places, but go on to become national treasures, more so perhaps than their Mayfair counterparts. The Checkers only opened in 2011 but already boasts a Michelin star, it clearly has a bright future ahead of it.
After the meal and the following day (I stayed over in one of their rooms), I had a few moments to talk to Stephane, Sarah and Kathryn who are all lovely. They're young, passionate and talented, and anyone who cares about good food in this country can only be delighted that The Frenchman and the Farmer's Daughters have taken the risk to go it alone with their own restaurant. Going forward, The Checkers will undoubtedly receive more awards and most likely more stars given a little time. The Roux family has given the UK a remarkable food legacy, and I'm sure they're very proud of Stephane and Sarah, for that legacy is in safe hands with The Checkers.
Visit The Checkers website
Previously I visited: Fischers at Baslow Hall
Next stop: Mr Underhill's, Ludlow
Location Map for The Checkers