The Crown at Whitebrook, Wales

James Sommerin“The Crown at Whitebrook, home
  to the blue-eyed boy of Welsh
  cuisine, James Sommerin, is a former
  17th century drovers
inn now run
  as a ‘restaurant with rooms
and has
  the distinction of being the first
  restaurant in Wales to be awarded
  a Michelin star

IN A TRANQUIL ROMANTIC FOREST setting with just the deer and babbling brooks running past its doorstep, you'll find and experience a magical combination of exceptional style, five-star service (it is different, but on a par with the Dorchester Hotel's Grill which is exemplary), high-end dining and contemporary comfort.

Arriving at The Crown was like stepping into the warm embrace of an old friend — the welcome was so friendly and genuine. We were made to feel as if we were in a cocoon of tranquillity and the attentive, but delightfully unobtrusive, service continued throughout our visit.

The contemporary bedrooms were attractive and sumptuous with much-appreciated attention to detail: fluffy white towels in the pretty, well equipped bathroom; welsh cakes to munch on; a decanter of sherry; as well as a fantastic selection of books together with a terrific selection of DVDs to borrow should you wish to hole-up between the crisp linen sheets… Cool, cosy, chic and romantic with every modern facility going — not forgetting the picture-book scene from our window across the myriad colours of the forest. Could anything be more perfect?

The Crown at Whitebrook

Principally though, we had driven over two hundred miles to test the great reputation of James' modern but classic French-style food. Together with the delightful Shaun Hill of the Walnut Tree, James Sommerin is quite simply one of the most influential ambassadors of 'cooking' in Wales at the moment.

In my opinion he has been partly responsible for encouraging the rise of high dining standards in Wales with the result that The Crown is now considered to be one of the top dining destinations in the UK. Understandably, James is passionate about what he does and wants to be the first to attain that coveted second Michelin star for Wales.

It would have been easy to linger too long in our comfortable bedroom sipping sherry, but the promise of a culinary treat soon had us descending to the beautiful restaurant downstairs. After all, The Crown is meant to be a 'restaurant with rooms' — with the food taking centre stage.

The Crown's dining experience was an utterly relaxed and polished affair. Surprisingly unstuffy, the restaurant is a fine-looking and elegant room complete with complementary beams and a good variety of original artwork on the walls.

We decided to go with the recommendation and sample one of the 'tasting' menus with a selection of wines by the glass chosen to match the flavours. Alex the sommelier and Emma our waitress orchestrated the evening expertly with a seamless stream of utterly delicious dishes and wines.

We've noted in other inspired and high-achieving restaurants to expect wines sourced from many different areas, rather than falling back on the classics. The Crown is no exception; every imaginative morsel of food was bursting with flavour with the wines hitting just the right notes.

The essence of the very best of locally-sourced produce are married together to produce bold, original flavours that are utterly sublime — and are technically very accomplished. Who would have thought of serving hare and almond cake together or a spectacular poached lobster, ham hock and parsnip in a coffee and bisque 'soup'?

The oxtail and Hereford snails with parsley, lemon and pearl parley were tasty; the rich dark chocolate cookies with golden raisins served with Sam Emilio Pedro Ximenez delightfully more-ish.

The next morning we decided to explore, and our first stop was an elegant former mill owner's house just up the road from The Crown which Denise Yapp has turned into a gallery. Denise has let her home be pleasantly overrun with an eclectic collection of pictures and bronzes, plus some modern pieces of furniture — there you will recognise the same style of the artists as can be seen gracing The Crown's walls.

Wandering a little further afield will brig you to Tintern Abbey which, when built, must have been an undertaking to equal to building the Firth of Forth bridge. It is a massive structure with soaring walls, sadly now mostly roofless but still mightily impressive. It is not just historically important but also spellbinding.

Visitors are truly spoilt for choice as there is simply so much to see and do in this area. For the cultural 'vulture', there are ruined castles (and some of the oldest hill forts in England), art galleries and, dare I say it, the cider trail with cider and perry tasting. So, not just about 'country' pursuits.

Was it worth the 200-mile journey each way? Absolutely! I hate to say it with a Royal wedding in the offing, but it would make a perfect honeymoon destination!

James and Tim McDougall, the chef from the sister Celtic Manor restaurant, have just compiled a great sixty-page cookbook which has been published by The Crown. This limited edition, full-colour book has recipes created especially for the two restaurants and I only wish I had taken the opportunity to grab one during our visit. You can obtain a copy of the book by visiting The Crown's website (link below).

If you have been drawn in as we have been with this part of Wales, do read the article on the nearby Bell at Skenfrith. It too offers a memorably good experience but it has its own style and approach, so that these two welcoming hostelries perfectly complement each other rather than compete. — Bonnie and Tim Stevens

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