Fortunately, Whitebrook comes up on the SatNav since there's no street name and 'near Monmouth', the second line of their address covers quite a bit of ground. Knowing I'm on the right road when I reach Whitebrook prompts relief, and after that, it's not hard to find. An unassuming place, it has that old country pub look to it and if it's not your destination, is an easy place to drive past without a second glance. I have the same thoughts as I had when we first saw Simon Rogan's L'enclume, a sort of wow, it must be really hard to carve out a living doing fine dining in the middle of nowhere. A bit harsh on both venues perhaps but it's a testament to both that they are achieving success in rural areas doing top end food. I'm also hoping that I'm not going to be disappointed.
Before dinner however, I have time for a walk and enjoy the beautiful landscapes of the Wye Valley. With an abundance of nature on the doorstep, that Wales doesn't have more top restaurants is a little odd.
A drink in the bar before dinner and a chance to view the menus. There's a three course a la carte at £55 and both a 6 course (£67.50) and 9 course (£75.00) tasting menu available. I want to try the tasting menu to get the best view of the what the kitchen offers and with only £7.50 for three extra courses, economics dictate that I choose the 9 course menu even though I have been warned that it's a lot of food (it is, but fortunately, it's not my first rodeo). I also really hope I'm going to like it as nine courses from a kitchen that can't cook can feel a bit like hell: both painful and eternal.
To spoil the surprise, I did like it, very much so and my view is that the Crown is probably the best restaurant in Wales which might seem an absurd claim to make given that I haven't been to very many restaurants at all in Wales, but if someone out there is doing food better than this, I'm thinking the restaurant or the chef would have garnered much national publicity and hence I would have heard about it, after all, we keep our ears open for such things. Since I have heard about no such restaurant, it is safe to assume there is none. I conclude that the Crown at Whitebrook, one of only four restaurants in Wales with a Michelin star (of which three are now on this blog), is probably the best, though Checkers might at some time in the future prove me wrong.
Pigeon follows and is nicely done, quite traditional here, served with beetroot and presented attractively on the plate.
The final main is traditional Welsh: lamb, garlic, charred leek, lamb sweetbreads. It's served with a lustrous jus and is a fitting end to the cooked savouries.
Some dry ice fun follows with a deconstructed cheesecake which is James's dessert from Great British Menu. The spectacle makes the couple at the next table ask if they can take a picture of my dessert and I can't imagine there are many chefs using dry ice in Wales guaranteeing for the most part a captive audience. The dessert itself, billed here as raspberry, cream cheese, lemon and vanilla had scored an 8 from Angela Hartnett on TV and again, it's good to see the chef's vision coming from the kitchen.
My only criticism here is one of menu construction, both desserts had a similar feel with red berries, chocolate and citrus. By this stage of the meal however, the kitchen knew I was a blogger and I think James wanted me to have the popular summer strawberry dessert and show his top scoring dish from GBM. The dessert were however both enjoyed despite being incredibly full by this stage.
I really liked this meal and the Michelin star is totally deserved. I also think that it's in the top tier of 1 star restaurants nationally leading me to wonder if it could make the leap and achieve a second star. The mind of Michelin (if it indeed has one) is opaque and mysterious so who knows but the food here does have a strong imprint from a talented chef and a tasting menu avoiding traditional crowd pleasers like scallops (which are admittedly on the alc) and foie gras (which is not) in favour of rabbit, grey mullet and smoked eel does bring to mind somewhere like The Ledbury where Brett does his own thing; both also savour extensive use of game. Meanwhile, the last time I had pigeon this good was at Helen Darroze.
Elsewhere, the Crown was recently named Best Restaurant in Wales in the 2013 Good Food Guide ranking 27th nationally, very respectable considering that 2 star luminaries Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles is ranked 33rd and The Hand & Flowers ranks 36th.
I'm so glad I made the trip to Wales to try James Sommerin's food, it was worth it. It's great to find a gem of a restaurant in Wales and the Crown is certainly that. The guides suggest that James's food at the Crown has been improving every year and his star has been held for around five years now. In 2008 James was selected by The Guardian as one of the Chefs to Watch: my meal at the Crown suggests he's still worth watching.
Return to homepage
Crown at Whitebrook homepage