A delicious dinner well worth the effort of dressing up for
AT the risk of shattering any illusions you may or may not have about your resident restaurant critic, I might not be the man you think I am.
I know the photo at the top of the reviews depicts a reasonably smartlooking chap but that’s only because my editor hauled me into the office for a reluctant photograph and I had to make a bit of an effort for the man who pays part of my mortgage.
The reality is quite different. As a writer who works from home after years spent in offices, I rarely have to dress up at all. I don’t mean I sit in my home office in vest, pants and a pair of Family Guy slippers (if only), but I’m writing this in the same mufti I was wearing when I walked my daughter to school this morning and, quite possibly, the same shirt, jeans and trainers as I wore yesterday, too.
The irony of not having to make an effort working from home is the fact I really miss wearing a suit and relish any opportunity to dress up. And so, with dinner booked at Castle Bow at Taunton’s grand Castle Hotel, I made a bit more effort than usual. Batting away the moths, I found my suit at the back of the wardrobe, ironed a clean shirt, blew the dust off my cufflinks and polished the only decent (as in not used for gardening) shoes I own. OK, I might have looked like I was going for a job interview, but I tried my best for my Saturday night in Taunton. Castle Bow is one of those smart, elegant, old-school restaurants that makes you want to dress up for dinner - a rare thing these days as most places seem to encourage diners to be as casual as possible.
I’ve been eating at the Castle Hotel on and off for 20 years and although it has moved with the times, it’s essentially the same that it ever was - down to the 1980s soft porn - sorry, I mean arty - photos in the gents depicting models taking part in various country pursuits. My favourite is still the soft-focus image of the woman wearing a white blouse she has conveniently forgotten to fasten, holding a stick with a couple of mackerel.
In the latest edition of The Good Food Guide, Castle Bow scores a rating of six, which is the highest score for any restaurant in Somerset. That’s quite an achievement for head chef Liam Finnegan, who has followed in the formidable footsteps of Richard Guest, Phil Vickery and Gary Rhodes, among others.
Finnegan has stuck to the Modern British ethos of the Chapman family, who own the hotel, and South West ingredients appear throughout the menu.
As a rule, I steer clear of tasting menus because I like to choose my dinner rather than be told what to eat, but at £64 per person for six courses (and an extra £35 if you go for the wine flight), it really is a steal when you consider some main courses on the à la carte are £25.
The clincher for going with the tasting menu was simply because it featured all the dishes I fancied from the main menu, with extra courses. It was a no-brainer. With its Art Deco design, central service ‘island’ for wine and candlelit butchers block groaning under the weight of bottles of port and Somerset Cider Brandy, the compact dining room has plenty of charm. The bar was set high from the outset with excellent bread (a mini baguette and a brioche as buttery as the finest croissant) and an amuse bouche of silky, spicy pumpkin soup. Next, a precisely timed, quivering hand-dived scallop that truly tasted of the sea was teamed with a lozenge of tender, fibrous smoked pork belly, Jerusalem artichoke purée, barbecued rings of shallot and sorrel pesto.
It was swiftly followed by a beautifully cooked piece of Brixham turbot flanked by a fleshy mussel, a soft and pillowy gnocchi, a slice of roast cauliflower and chive-flecked lemon butter the colour of the sun.
A rosy-pink Somerset pigeon breast (‘from a chap called Barry,’ winked the waiter) and a breadcrumbed croquette of confit pigeon leg arrived with a sweet carrot purée, crisp slices of pressed and roasted Parma Ham and a dribble of fruity sherry vinegar dressing.
To follow, a rare and full-flavoured slice of organic Dexter beef and soft, gelatinous piece of ox cheek was accompanied by a meaty slice of Wood Blewit mushroom, creamy potato Dauphinoise, shredded Savoy cabbage and a dark, varnish-like jus.
A palate-cleansing plum and mulled wine sorbet was an early and welcome taste of Christmas before a rich dessert of dark chocolate torte, vanilla ice cream and Taunton honeycomb.
It brought to a close a meal of perfect rhythm and exemplary cooking, backed up by seamless service from well-drilled waiting staff.
Castle Bow at Taunton’s grand Castle Hotel
Marks starter - a quivering hand-dived scallop that truely tasted of the sea
The Wheatsheaf occupies an idyllic spot in the delightfulvillage of Combe Hay