Wednesday - Sunday
12.30pm - 2.30pm
Tuesday - Saturday
7.00pm - 9.30pm
12 Sadler Street
Wells BA5 2SE
(0)44 1749 689 099
Jay Rayner at The Observer Writes About The Old Spot
"After my trip to the Old Spot in Somerset, I was asked by a friend whether it had been worth the four-hour train journey.
I replied that the question's premise - that the restaurant is a long way from me - was faulty. It's the other way round: I'm the one who happens to be a great distance from the restaurant. Or, to put it another way, if I judged every place outside London according to whether it had justified the trip, very few would make the cut. Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, naturally, the Sportsman in Whitstable and, er, that's it.
The truth is that culinary fireworks are, like real ones, only great in small doses. Man cannot live by pigeonneau roti aux cretes, puree a la racine de persil, avec confit d'ail, alone. The one thing that will improve eating out in Britain is not more gastronomic temples - there's enough 'witty' stuff being served in shot glasses for us to be getting on with right now - but more of the everyday; the sort of place you can imagine eating at three times a week.
And so to The Old Spot, as recommended to me by Simon Hopkinson, author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which, last year, was declared the most useful cookbook of all time. The chef at The Old Spot, Ian Bates, worked with Hopkinson when he headed the kitchen at London's Bibendum in the early Nineties, and it shows. It is common these days to talk about the great battalions of chefs trained by Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White, but no one should underestimate Hopkinson's contribution. He represents a direct line back to the philosophy of Elizabeth David - French provincial cooking, based on first principles, free of unnecessary adornment - which is being carried on by the likes of Henry Harris at Racine, his brother Matthew at Bibendum, Bruce Poole at Chez Bruce and Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Cafe. None of Hopkinson's boys is ever likely to be found adulterating their veloutes with lemon-grass.
And that includes Bates.
The Old Spot, in the cathedral town of Wells, is a handsome rather than a pretty space. There is olive-coloured wood panelling to what I believe estate agents call the dado rail, and above that white walls hung with framed menus from some of the big-name French restaurants. The only bit of flash is the bar, which is inlaid with a vivid mosaic of small purple, emerald and gold tiles.
At lunch, three courses are £15, with four choices at each course, rising in the evenings to £25 with six choices, both menus changing weekly. It was a short list, but challenging. I wanted to eat all of it, but in the end chose for my starter the pressed ham terrine with lentil vinaigrette over the gazpacho or brandade of salt cod, because a terrine is a good test of any kitchen. It was a solid chunk of sweet piggyness, the whole cut through by a tidy pile of the nutty lentils, mixed in with the spiky vinaigrette. Next to it were a couple of cornichons. And that was it. There was no need for anything else.
For mains, a choice of tomato risotto, poached salted ox tongue, roast pollock or braised shoulder of lamb. The lamb had been taken off the bone, rolled and then caramelised to give crisp contrast to the softness of the meat within. Alongside was ratatouille, and it wasn't one of those tragic reinventions of the dish that too many kitchens attempt, chopping the vegetables to millimetre dice and straining the sauce until it is less a part of the dish than an echo of its ingredients. This was an in-yer-face ratatouille with chunky pieces of aubergine and a sauce that was the essence of a bucketful of tomatoes.
After those two hefty dishes I probably should have had the summer fruit compote, but there was a St Emilion au chocolat on offer, which is a Hopkinson recipe from Roast Chicken, and should be ordered whenever possible: a slab of indecently rich and boozy dark chocolate mousse, over- and underlaid with crushed amaretti biscuits. It is, I think, what the word dessert was invented for.
A great meal, then, at a sensible price. Is it the kind of place I would normally travel half a day to reach for lunch? In all honesty, no, but, in the hope this doesn't sound too contrary, I'm still glad that I did."