There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Checkers, Montgomery: Dining with the Frenchman and the Farmer's Daughters

Tradition dictates that for our wedding anniversary I organise a day out culminating in a meal at a top class, usually Michelin starred, restaurant while Lynne remains ignorant of where we are going until we arrive. The 26th is our anniversary and this year’s restaurant is The Checkers, just over the Welsh border in the small town of Montgomery. I intended to write a post entitled Montgomery and The Checkers, but my plan seriously underestimated the charm of the tiny town (pop 1,300) which deserves a post of its own – so there are two this year, the previous one for Montgomery, this one for The Checkers.

Montgomery, the former county town of a former county
The Checkers is owned by the self-described 'Frenchman and two farmer's daughters.'

Agen born Stéphane Borie, previously worked at the Waterside Inn in Bray under Michel Roux Snr, where he met his partner, pastry chef Sarah Francis, the daughter of a Shropshire farmer. In 2008 they acquired the Herbert Arms in Chirbury, and were joined by Sarah’s sister Kathryn working front of house. In 2011 the family team crossed the Welsh border to The Checkers in Montgomery (a distance of three miles), won a Michelin star within the year and have maintained it ever since.

Sarah, Kathryn and Stéphane
(Picture stolen from their own website)
The 17th century inn is in Broad Street, effectively Montgomery’s main square. Next door is the Montgomery Fish Bar, which is how an advertisement for Pukka Pies comes to stand outside a Michelin starred restaurant.

The Checkers, Broad Street, Montgomery
Like many of Montgomery’s old buildings, an unassuming exterior hides a surprisingly large interior. We checked in and were shown to our room on the first floor.

At 7.15, as instructed, we presented ourselves in the lounge for drinks, canapés and perusal of the menu. The latter took very little time as all diners get the same six course set menu (variations are possible if coeliac sufferers, vegans, pescatarians and fussy buggers identify themselves when booking). Each course is served at the same time to all tables. The only choice was whether to go with their recommended wines and, as no single bottle could suit the whole menu, we did.

Lynne ordered a gin and tonic and after a recent drowning incident requested the tonic be brought separately. The request was unnecessary, this practice is routine at The Checkers and I applaud them for it. My dry martini was good too, perhaps because I have returned to specifying Tanqueray, rather than trying out yet another new wave gin.

Canapés consisted of Roquefort cream on a parmesan biscuit, and ballotine of duck topped with pear chutney. The cream was exquisite, the biscuit delightful if structurally suspect and shameless finger licking was required after its collapse. The duck was well flavoured, though Lynne was unsure the pear chutney made an ideal accompaniment.

Ballotine of duck and parmesan biscuits with Roquefort cream
We moved from lounge to dining room
Just a part of the spacious dining room, The Checkers, Montgomery
The first course was an amuse-bouche sized Smoked Tomato Velouté with Goat’s Cheese Cream and Dried Olives. The velouté was rich and deep if not very smoky and the goat’s cream cheese a perfect complement though I was unsure of the point of the, almost flavourless, specks of dried olive. At the bottom was a little peeled fruit. ‘A grape’, I suggested tentatively, mainly on size – obviously not, it was a tiny cherry tomato (I think).

Tio Pepe sherry would have made an interesting accompaniment but ours tasted musty, so we sent it back, asking them to open a fresh bottle. Our complaint bought a visit from Kathryn with an apology and the information that they had no other bottle of Tio Pepe (really?) or any other comparably dry sherry. After a little discussion, we settled for a glass of Sancerre, which was pleasant but lacked the weight the sherry would have bought to the combination.

Being ludicrously over-privileged, this was our second Michelin starred meal this month. A fortnight ago at Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth I wondered why bread is routinely served at this juncture. In France good, ordinary bread is always on the table, some often eaten with the first course, occasionally more with the second. British bread does a different job, but restaurants have an atavistic need to ‘put bread on the table’; fine restaurants scratch this itch with specialist breads. The Checkers, offering modern and classic French cuisine to a largely British clientele, compromises by serving a French quantity of British speciality breads. If there was a danger of us going hungry this would be brilliant, but there wasn’t, so although it was excellent bread (we nibbled!) we had no real use for it. A stated aim of the ‘one menu for all' policy is to cut food waste, so what do they do with the surplus bread?
A platter of wonderful bread - for which we sadly had little use
The Checkers, Montgomery
Salmon is out of fashion with the chef fraternity (quite rightly, in Lynne’s opinion) so seeing Rotolo of Confit Salmon with Red Peppers and Basil Dressing on the menu was mildly surprising. A Rotolo (I had to look it up) is a pasta sheet wrapped round a cylinder of something, a sort of non-planar lasagne. Neither of us thought it did the salmon any favours, but I at least found the cube of salmon with the crispest possible skin very much to my taste. Neither the fragments of red pepper, nor the basil dressing contributed much and the little blobs of what look like tomato ketchup might have been better if they were.

Rotolo of confit salmon with red peppers and basil dressing, The Checkers, Montgomery
The rotolo (left) was standing on end before I started messing with it.
The Domaine Rougie Viognier was exactly the same wine James Sommerin selected for his beetroot dish. A Vin de Pays d’Oc, it is far classier than its ranking but unfortunately I am not a Viognier fan.

Passion fruit, lime and ginger granite was a tiny bowl of deliciousness, the passion fruit cream topping a prelude to the well flavoured granite below, where sharp lime and fresh ginger cleansed and freshened the palate. One of our neighbours found the lime over-acidic, another the ginger too aggressive (people speak louder when tables are well separated) but we thought it close to perfection.

Lynne with the small, but perfectly formed granite,
The Checkers, Montgomery

Although James Sommerin’s six course tasting menu consisted of half a dozen equally sized courses, I could not resist calling the guinea fowl the ‘main course’. The Checkers offered a ‘six course set menu’ rather than a ‘tasting menu’ with no suggestion the courses were of equal size or importance, the velouté and granite had been miniscule, Trio of Neuadd Fach pork, pomme fondant, artichoke and braising juice was a true main course, indeed a mighty meaty platter.

Trio of Neuadd Fach Pork, fondant potato and artichoke

Lynne has a strange prejudice against fondant potatoes, but cooked to perfection, soaked through with butter and braising juices I thought this humble spud was almost sublime. I was less impressed with the artichoke, both heart and purée, because I am less impressed by artichokes. James Sommerin gave us artichoke too; although ‘vegetable of the moment’ they taste of little and have an unappealing texture – I will be happy when the fashion changes. The (uncredited) asparagus, however was a delight, gently cooked and full of flavour.

I have left the best to last. Neuadd Fach Baconry in nearby Llandinam is a small-scale producer of high quality pork products and Stéphane Borie’s sympathetic treatment produced a plate of piggy heaven, the braised meat richly porky, the sumptuous belly pork crowned with the finest crackling. The black pudding completing the trio was at the soft, herby end of the black pudding spectrum, not my favourite, but a good example of the style.

A softish Fleurie should be a perfect partner, La Madone is the best vineyard in the village and Gilbert Chadunet is a respected producer, so why, then can I hardly remember the wine? Seduced by a surfeit of swine I must have lost concentration.

Dark chocolate and raspberry cardinal with vanilla ice cream, was as pretty a dessert as one could want. The cardinal was lovely – dark chocolate and raspberry as advertised - though I am unsure what makes it a ‘cardinal’, presumably not the pope. I love vanilla ice cream, that is ice cream tasting of vanilla not ‘vanilla’ as a synonym for ‘plain’. This was very sweet, but had little vanilla flavour, which was disappointing.
Raspberry and dark chocolate cardinal with vanilla ice cream

Toro Albalá’s 1986 Dom PX Pedro Ximénez Gran Reserva is something else. Not so long ago Montilla was sold as a cheap alternative to sherry; it was never anything like this. Almost black and thick enough to coat your palate – if not quite stand a spoon in – its sweetness and intense flavour of figs and liquorice lingered for ever. I could not drink much of this – nor could I afford to, it is appropriately expensive – but a small glass is a big privilege.

Lynne, the dessert and a glass of PX
In another of the Frenchman’s compromises with British preferences ‘A Selection of Cheeses’ was the final course. It is tempting to compare his cheese board with James Sommerin's, who being Welsh has no difficulty in doing things the French way and putting cheese before dessert (or, in his case, desserts). Sadly, there was no comparison; instead of selecting from 32 cheeses we were presented with three. This accords admirably with the policy of minimising food waste, but the cheeses could have been more adventurously chosen. Roquefort, once a treat is now a commonplace, though theirs, cut from a large wedge, avoided the sliminess of much supermarket Roquefort. Vignotte is more unusual, but hardly unknown and despite its triple-cream sumptuousness fails to excite. The smoked cheddar should have stayed at the wholesalers. No complaints, though about the glass of Churchill Graham  2012 LBV port, the third fortified wine of the meal - but so what?

Selection of Cheeses, The Checkers, Montgomery
I had coffee and we shared the petit fours, and that was the end. As at James Sommerin I eschewed a digestif; this is either wisdom, or lack of staying power, either way it is a function of age.

After 42 years of marriage this was our 13th anniversary meal and the 8th to be recorded on this blog. It was very good, but not the greatest; the first Michelin starred meal I ate so blew me away I thought it perfection, these days I have become picky.

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