Nothing builds up an appetite like walking 140km across Wales
Deciding where to eat when you’re on holiday can be a tricky business. The quality of guide book recommendations is, to put it politely, highly variable. The more rural/remote your destination, the less likely there are to be other sources of reviews, recommendations and reconnaissance. One could just eat at wherever you happen to stumble upon, but this then makes it more likely you’ll just stick to what you know rather than challenging yourself and your tastebuds.
Even when there are ample sources of recommendations, there’s always that nagging feeling in the back of your mind about whether you’re really getting to eat what the locals themselves would choose. Throw in restricted opening hours and concerns around safety in the midst of a pandemic, and you may well be tempted to just drag along a few bottles of Huel in your luggage instead.
All of these thoughts swirled around in my head as I walked east-to-west through the Brecon Beacons, a quiltwork stretch of mountains, valleys, hills and pasture land in South Wales. Whether or not you work up an appetite by walking the 140km east-to-west path of the Beacons Way as I did, there are a surprisingly plentiful clutch of restaurants in this predominately rural part of the UK – at least in the more heavily populated eastern part of the Beacons. The further west you go, the more likely you are to find yourself relying on a village’s sole pub or the gracious, informal home cooking of your accommodation provider for sustenance – situations that aren’t covered below, for reasons explained in my Cornwall article.
What follows are less than full reviews, but more than just Instagram-length, emoji-strewn blubberings. If you’re thinking of heading to the Brecon Beacons, think of this article as just one potential resource to help you choose where to eat rather than a comprehensive guide.
The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny
The restaurant at The Angel Hotel is one of the few that’s currently open throughout the week in Abergavenny, rather than just at the fun end of the week. It’s an undeniably elegant-looking space, while the staff were welcoming if a tad slow at times.
The menu pulls in influences from near and far, but not always to exemplary effect.
A tired selection of breads came with equally limp butter, while the baba ghanoush tasted mostly of tahini with not enough aubergine.
The quality of the deep-fried batter coating the tofu and banana blossoms never reached the feathery heights needed to justify its tempura labelling. While more chip shop than tempura-ya, the tofu was at least thick, hearty and bread-like while the blossoms were sweet and chewy. The sweet chilli sauce wasn’t as ineffectual as expected, largely due to a kimchi-like tang.
Scallops weren’t firm and bouncy enough, while the chilli and garlic butter was improbably bland. Which is almost an impressive feat in of itself.
Dinner finally picked up with the arrival of the lamb rack. The moist and tender meat not only had a firm bounce to it, but was also tinged with ribbons of neatly just-rendered connective tissue and occasional hints of nuttiness. It was flavoursome enough to make the tomato and black olive jus almost redundant. But only ‘almost’, as the jus was needed to pep up the potato daupinois which was surprisingly floppy and shrug-inducing despite being studded with earthy bits of lamb.
Zabaione was unsatisfying, the sozzled tang of the limoncello outweighing and overwhelming the creamy eggyness of the pudding and even the sweetness of the berries.
It almost seems like a cheap joke to say that the best thing at this Welsh restaurant was the lamb. But, in this instance at least, that’s the way the cookie crumbled.
Total cost for one person: £70
The Gaff, Abergavenny
The Gaff isn’t a caff full of lads inadvisedly scratching their groins in public, but a relaxed, airy restaurant serving up a menu of small plates.
Marmite butter wasn’t as offensive I had feared, but neither was it especially memorable. In the end, it was upstaged by the airy, sweet milk roll and the lightly malty brown loaf that it accompanied.
Deep-fried oysters had a double-layered crust: the crisp and delicate batter was itself enrobed with modestly umami, salty jamon. It needed muuch more resting time though, as the molluscs themselves were scaldingly hot.
The pattern repeated itself with the courgette tempura – crisp, delicate batter marred by a red hot filling. The rocket pesto was more of a pedestrian salsa verde, but the tomato ragout was a moreishly smoky affair that helped paper over this dish’s flaws.
While attractively glossy, cod wasn’t anywhere as meaty as I expected – almost certainly due to the fish being oddly reconstituted into a squat puck. Chicken sauce, possibly a reduction of some sort, added an oddly heavy but not unpleasant presence. This meaty undertow carried much of the flavour in this peculiar dish.
While served oddly without rice, The Gaff’s prawn katsu curry was otherwise highly credible. Plump, just-cooked prawns came sheathed in crisply breaded shells that – while not up to the highest standards of feathery tonkatsu – was nonetheless a fine textural partner for the crustaceans. The chip shop curry sauce was also winsome, leaning more into its pepperiness than its sweetness. The ‘coleslaw’ perched on top was more of a crunchy salad that acted as a refreshing counterpoint to the relative heaviness of the curry sauce.
While sinewy, pig cheeks were otherwise a surprising non-presence that leaned heavily on a sticky, modestly umami jus for character. The accompanying potato mousse didn’t help much – far too sweet at first bite, before rapidly declining into bland irrelevance.
Lamb shoulder was a far better testament to the carnivorous arts with an earthiness coursing through each tender cuboid. Confit cabbage was surprisingly like kale and takeaway ‘seaweed’ in its salty crispness. Salsa verde mayo attempted to bind the two together, but this bland savoury Chantilly cream wasn’t up to the task. That was the only real flaw on this plate though.
‘Bread and butter pudding’ hardly does justice to a dessert of uncommon pleasure. A caramelised crust both complimented and contrasted with the soft, squidgy, buttery cushion of a carb rectangle underneath. The sourness of stewed plums helped balance out that relative richness, while cinnamon Chantilly added a warming, spiced scent. I almost asked for seconds.
While almost as uneven as The Angel Hotel, I’d be more tempted to eat at The Gaff again based purely on the quality of dishes such as the prawn katsu curry, lamb shoulder and, most of all, that bread and butter pudding.
Total cost for one person: £60
The Vine Tree, Llangattock
While located in the village of Llangattock, rather than the somewhat busier town of Crickhowell just across the River Usk, The Vine Tree was nonetheless bustling on the evening of my weekday visit. It wasn’t hard to see why after tucking into the scallops and langoustine. While both were evocative of the sea, the langoustine was especially rewarding with its briney saltiness and milkiness, crowned with peppery head gunk. The molluscs were almost overshadowned as a result, despite their ample plumpness. Both were made even better by a buttery bisque that was rich enough to resemble hollandaise. This was one hell of a starter, kicking into high gear at the drop of a napkin.
Grilled sardines peeled away from the bone effortlessly. An initially mellow taste soon gave way to an oily richness that built up slowly, but one that never became overwhelming. The fillets were also tinged with hints of char and smoke, adding another layer of character. Sweet fleshy peppers balanced out the relative richness of the fishes.
Halibut was generously muscular, yet each impressively hench chunk cleaved off at the graze of a knife. Each and every slice was moist and firm. Not only was the crisp skin blessed with a richly sticky undertow, the bits of halibut closest to the skin were just as sumptuously succulent. Despite this superlative mouthfeel, the fish was otherwise a blank slate of flavour and thus needed better tasting partners to fill in that gap. A puck of mash glazed with crayfish butter was surprisingly tame and insipid, which even the sweet tomatoes and courgettes couldn’t compensate for.
A tangy yet refreshingly cool parfait had its seam of viscous, sugary sweetness enhanced by puffy popcorn and fleshy banana bits tinged with toffee.
If I’m ever in this part of Wales again, I’ll be beating a hasty path towards The Vine Tree’s door.
Total cost for one person: £55
Felin Fach Griffin, Brecon
The people behind the Felin Fach Griffin, just outside of Brecon, also run a pair of gastropubs in Cornwall. Somewhat embarrassingly, I’ve failed to nab a table at either despite having visited Cornwall twice in the space of 12 months. I say only ‘somewhat’ embarrassingly as, after having eaten at the Felin Fach Griffin a couple of times, I’m starting to suspect that the reputation of these gastropubs has been overhyped to some degree.
Chunky, crusty lunks of brown bread came with both butter and hummus. I found it best to combine the two, as the mildly lactic tang of the butter helped bring out a gentle smokiness from the lightly peppery and sweet hummus. On its own, the hummus was otherwise a bit too sweet, which was odd for an ostensibly tahini-based spread.
A reasonably interesting selection of heritage tomatoes, ranging from umami to sweet, came sprinkled with pickled shallots which added a sharp tang to the fruit. The frozen pesto did little apart from enhancing the shallots a wee bit, mostly coming across as a wilting savoury ice cream.
Torched fillets of mackerel were surprisingly meek, although this arguably allowed them to better act as carriers for the sweet fruity blobs of emulsified cucumber, gooseberries and elderflower. Even then, there must surely be a less cerebral and more satisfying use for all this fish and fruit.
A glossy, meaty hunk of hake and a surprisingly sweet, crisp cauliflower fritter almost came across as a pescatarian coronation chicken due to the mildly caramelised curry mayo dotted with crisp scraps. It would’ve been a politely inoffensive and forgettable affair, but for the sweet and starchy potato fondant. It managed to be far more characterful, whether taken with the curry mayo or its own lightly peppery jus.
Ricotta is almost always an eminently enjoyable cheese, but here it was nothing short of wondrous. It was so fluffy, sweet and cool as to resemble ice cream. This hardly sounds like an appropriate canvas for mushrooms and pumpkin. And yet the tartness and firm bite of pickled shimeji and the nuttiness of pumpkin seeds melded perfectly with the cheese. What didn’t sit right was the mildly sweet and starchy butternut squash soup served on the side and poured over the cheese and veg at will. While fine in of itself, the soup was an actively unwelcome guest by figuratively and literally drowning out everything else.
I was initially sceptical of the deconstructed ratatouille main, but was soon largely won over by the charms of the individual fruits and vegetables. Bouncy then tender aubergine and a moreishly puncy garlic puree were the two shining stars here, amidst a sparkling flora firmament of fruity sweet tomatoes, juicy yet buttery courgettes and tapenade-like olives. It didn’t all come together like a traditional ratatouille, but I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless.
A main of roast cod somehow lacked the winsome mouthfeel of the hake starter, despite coming from the same kitchen. This disappointment was compounded by the mutedly drab beetroot, courgette and fennel – a surprise given the vegetable superpower that was the ratatouille. The sweet, starchy and yieldingly toothsome celeriac was the one bright spot on this plate.
Panna cotta and ice cream were both blemish-free in their smoothness and tasted of coffee in that ersatz coffee way which you only ever find in sweets and desserts. They were joined by a sugared and squishy ring doughnut, giving off a mild scent of cinnamon. If only plopping three middling desserts together on the same plate somehow transformed them into a single great dessert.
Rhubarb crumble had been deconstructed, only to be reconstructed into a sort-of trifle. Reasonably firm and tart rhubarb, served at room temperature, came buried underneath a heap of mildly eggy cream and mediocre ice cream blighted by one too many errant ice crystals. Even if all of this hadn’t been remarkably underwhelming, it would’ve had to have been utterly extraordinary to make me not miss a traditional crumble. Or, for that matter, a trifle.
Aside from the occasional flash of brilliance, this Griffin was far from legendary. It was, for the most part, rather mundane.
Average cost for one person: £45-55 (£38 set menu available)