This article was also published in Business Life.
The Old Spot in Wells, Somerset, boasts Ian Bates's excellent cooking and possibly the most spectacular view of any restaurant anywhere.
The restaurant industry equivalent of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, also involves two ingredients which are often just as difficult as the original to entangle. Which is more important to a really memorable restaurant, a good chef or a wonderful location?
There are numerous examples of exceptional restaurants where it is impossible to disentangle this association. Would Jeremy Lee's cooking be quite so powerful if the tables in his Blueprint Café did not overlook Tower Bridge and the Thames? The drives to reach Michel Bras's restaurant in Laguiole, high up in south west France or Ferran Adria's El Bulli in north east Spain overlooking the Mediterranean undoubtedly add to the pleasure these two inspired chefs deliver, while there seems to be the whole of London on view from the tables at Galvin at Windows on the 28th floor of the Hilton, Park Lane.
But all these pale into relative insignificance when compared to the view on offer to the one lucky person who gets to sit looking out of the window from table 13 in The Old Spot restaurant which Ian Bates opened in Wells, Somerset last summer. Straight in front is Cathedral Square and beyond that the magnificent Wells Cathedral itself, begun initially in the 10th century and only finished in the 13th, an era when there were obviously no penalties for not finishing a building on time. But even if you are not lucky enough to get this particular table there is always the opportunity to leave the restaurant by its back door and, after an excellent meal, take in one of the most beautiful relics of medieval Britain.
Views, however, do not on their own make for a great meal and it is a pleasure to report how Bates' culinary talents have finally found the home they richly deserve.
Like many young chefs Bates came to London to learn his trade and it was his first stroke of good fortune to work under the hugely inspirational Simon Hopkinson when he was in charge of the kitchens at Bibendum in South Kensington during the 1980's. From there he worked at Bluebird and then ran his own restaurant in a less auspicious site before moving out to the West Country to work for Chef Direct, a company specialising in supplying top produce to London's best restaurants. It was here, while preparing so much sushi for the Itsu chain, that Bates acquired the nickname of 'the fish filleter.'
For two years Bates and his wife looked for what he only referred to as 'a good site' anywhere in Somerset, Devon or Cornwall until a two line advert in Caterer & Hotelkeeper steered them towards what had for years been a tea-room and subsequently a wine bar. "As soon as we saw it I knew this was the place," Bates exuded. "There are the Georgian double bay windows at the front and the windows on to the square at the back so the restaurant is always light and bright. And it also has this elevated section at the back with half a dozen tables on it which helps to break up the room".
Negotiations were tortuous as the vendors were divorcing and putting their business into liquidation before Bates could sink the £100,000 he had available into his new business of which £30,000 went on necessary kitchen equipment. While major changes to the dining room will come from future profits the comfortable interior is decorated by framed menus from restaurants round the world where Bates has eaten and a clever use of table linen and old wooden tables bought in France and reconditioned in the Somerset Levels. The room is there to provide an unobtrusive backdrop to Bates's cooking and his diners' pleasure.
Bates's cooking style can most accurately be described as honest, unfussy and packed full of flavour. Working with only two assistants in a basement kitchen, Bates keeps to a straightforward formula of four choices at each course and uses the time when the restaurant is closed, Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday lunch to create new lunch and dinner menus that will run for the whole week.
On the night we ate there the dinner consisted of such an interesting range of dishes that I was glad there were enough of us round the table to try them all. There was a soufflé Suissesse, a rich, doubly baked cheese and cream soufflé that has been a mainstay on the menu at Le Gavroche in Mayfair for years; a pungent mussel and saffron risotto; and deep fried cubes of pork belly with a lamb's lettuce salad. A huge slice of Gloucester Old Spot pork (from which the restaurant derives its name) came with some delicious flageolets while the serving of braised shin of beef was just as generous. But the star of the show was a thick fillet of plaice, cut across the bone, served with brown shrimps, cucumber and dill, testimony to Bates's years as a fish filleter. Of the desserts the boiled orange cake, which draws its inspiration from Morocco, was most notable.
As we walked back to our car past the Cathedral my friend smiled and commented, "You know, The Old Spot is spot on.!"
The Old Spot, 12 Sadler Street, Wells, Somerset BA5 3TT, 01749-689099
Lunch £15 three courses, dinner £25
Lunch Wednesday-Sunday. Dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Chef of the month
Beat Bolliger, Walserhof, Landstrasse 141, CH-7250 Klosters, Switzerland,
0041 81 410 29 29, http://www.walserhof.ch
Beat Bolliger is the chef while his wife, Gabi, runs this restaurant with 11 bedrooms high in the Swiss mountains where the sports on offer all year round are almost as numerous as the dishes on the menu and the wines in the cellar. Bolliger's specialities include a terrine of venison with sweet and sour plums, ravioli with spinach and chanterelles and, like all good Swiss chefs, anything to do with chocolate.