Chef Chris Staines has been at the helm of the Abbey Hotel’s Allium Brasserie for nearly two years now. But what impact has this Michelin-quality chef really had on the business – and on Bath’s dining scene? LAURA ROWE finds out
Bath’s never been as famous for its food – the odd exception, like the original The Hole in the Wall, aside – as its other qualities. The honeyed stone: sure. Mucky spa water: of course. Famous writers who hated the place: yep. It’s the nature of the beast, you see. As a tourist town you get chains, and lots of ’em. Some are good, others aren’t. But nowadays it’s rather different. Bath’s food and drink scene has quite the buzz about it (so much so, we write a magazine about it every four weeks), and one of its leading lights is a minor local legend called Chris Staines.
For those unfamiliar, he’s the man who – along with hoteliers Ian and Christa Taylor – recently transformed the Bath Abbey Hotel. Opening Allium Brasserie there in January 2012 as chef patron, Chris’s work soon struck a chord with locals and national press alike. Who could forget that glowing Jay Rayner review…?
Having gained and maintained a Michelin star for seven years at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Chris has unexpectedly brought fusion flair to Allium’s ever- popular ‘modern British’ offering, and positioned the restaurant comfortably in the middle of the market. The place isn’t cheap, but it’s not excessively expensive either; it’s not informal, but certainly not stuffy. And the best thing? He and his team deliver in every area.
Service is good – it’s attentive but not irritatingly so, friendly but not sickly. The décor is stylish but not over done – there’s no cloth on the tables, the colour palette is understated, but the cutlery is still Robert Welch and there’s artwork on the walls with price tags that would make your eyes water. There are big plans for the hotel’s bar too, under mixologist Andrew Fisher.
But back to the food. I’ve eaten at the restaurant several times now at various events (they host a lot of those too – check out their website), but this time I was in for lunch with our ad manager, L. There’s a set menu for midday and early diners – a great idea if you want to try a place on the cheap – which costs £15.95 for two courses or £21 for three, and an eclectic a la carte.
There are snacks, which start at £2.50 and run up to £6.50, including Scotch eggs (posh style, with quail eggs and apple chutney) and glazed pork ribs with garlic, chilli and sesame. We tested both ends of the kitchen team’s culinary spectrum, with a taste of the Med in the form of Seranno ham croquetas (£4.50 for golden balls of cheesy, salty goodness), and of the East, with mandarin segments stuffed with shrimp jam, peanuts, chilli and coriander (£3.50 buying a burst of sweet, sour, salty and heat all in one tiny, tasty mouthful). There’s homemade sourdough rye bread too, with spreadably soft, yellow butter.
L tucked into the set menu, with a duck salad to start. Shreds of crispy confit duck provided a clever contrast to the cloud-like softness of a duck liver parfait quenelle, while radish and fennel dressed with ginger and peanuts added yet more dynamism to the plate.
My quail glazed in a chilli caramel (£10.50) from the a la carte was almost as dark as the black plate it was served on, but the sticky, sweet and spicy skin protected a ridiculously tender bird while a salad of Chinese cabbage, palm hearts, lychee, peanuts and coriander refreshed and excited the palate at the same time. Chris has mastered the Asian way with layers of flavour and texture.
My main of wild turbot (£23.50) jumped back over to this neck of the woods (well, if you count France as local) with aromatic herbs, roasted and purée of fennel and a light but flavour-packed spicy tomato sauce. A riot of colours on the plate and a full-on rave in the mouth.
L’s set menu once again showed its value with a really original, autumnal chicken dish with succulent breast, roasted and puréed butternut squash, crispy pancetta crisps and quinoa with the most crisp and fresh sweetcorn kernels. This might be fine dining, but it’s been made accessible and affordable, and notably the portions aren’t quite as measly as you might be used to in other similar establishments. We were full, but L didn’t want to miss out on the banoffeelicious caramelised banana with dulche de leche, biscuit crumbs and a caramel ice cream from the set menu. Soft, crunchy, sweet, cold, warm – this is what three AA rosettes are made of.
Chris has said he’s not chasing a star here, and it’s really not necessary to get punters through his door. He is, however, one of the most exciting chefs in the city at the moment. He and his team are bucking the trend with international flavours and ingredients, and he consistently delivers on flavour, texture, presentation, skill and originality. One of my top meals this year.
✱ ALLIUM BRASSERIE, Abbey Hotel, North Parade, Bath BA1 1LF; 01225 805241; www.abbeyhotelbath.co.uk