The Abbey Hotel in Bath has undergone something of a transformation since its days as a low budget Best Western establishment, having been taken over by Ian and Christa Taylor in 2012 (who have also just launched No. 15 Great Pulteney). Raising their game with a striking interior design makeover, The Abbey’s new basement Igloo Bar and frivolous annual pop-up Après Ski Bar meanwhile confirms its place as a party hotel, while the ArtBar is a more sophisticated (though no less fun) cocktail venue that’s a must when dining at the award-winning Allium Brasserie.
A cosy den with yellow ochre walls and voluminous drapes, leather wing armchairs and contemporary, conversation-inducing art including an assortment of vintage wine glasses suspended from the ceiling, the bar has a long-held reputation for mixing some of the best tipples in the city. Thus I decided to forgo my usual Margarita for the ArtBar’s classic Earl Grey Martini featuring extra dry gin, Earl Grey syrup and topped with frothy egg white and decorative Earl Grey tea leaves which might have told my fortune if I’d only known how to interpret them. Heady with bergamot and thankfully not too sweet, it convinced me to permanently shelve my usual tipple, although I’m sure they’d do a fine version of that too.
While the overall atmosphere of the hotel is one that’s light-hearted and fun-loving, it doesn’t take long to see that they’re serious about food under chef Chris Staines, who launched Allium in 2012 after making the move from London’s Mandarin Oriental hotel where he’d established a strong reputation as head chef of Foliage. London’s loss was very much Bath’s gain as Allium (now boasting three AA Rosettes) is one of the city’s more memorable restaurants, with both the décor and menu drawing on influences from around the world.
Although I may have initially been deceived by Allium’s buzzy bistro-style ambiance, my starter soon made me sit up and take notice due to being one of the most vibrant and delicious appetisers I have tasted in a long time. Soft, Miso-cured salmon was extremely flavoursome thanks to being delicately charred, and remained the star of a dish which proved a veritable disco of exotic flavours; from the generous swirl of wasabi yoghurt that gave the dish moisture and well-judged heat, to sweet and sour ponzu jelly cubes, acidic segments of grapefruit and pickled baby onions, to unctuously ripe and cooling avocado, while the finishing touches of caramelised cashew nuts and shards of sesame seed tuile added toasted notes and texture to the proceedings.
Nor did the main course fail to make an equally bold impression; gloriously golden pan fried pollock (a much unsung hero) was partnered with curried cauliflower – mild enough to enhance the vegetable’s natural sweetness – whilst being set off by an intense crab bisque and a temptingly golden breadcrumbed crab croquette that was bursting with beautiful sweet shellfish. The curry notes of the dish meanwhile worked amazingly well with the South African Chakalaka 2013 with its elegant notes of subtle spice.
After such a memorable first and second course, the dessert certainly had a lot to live up to – and did. Too good to share, (as Mr L was exasperated to discover), warm bite-size pieces of brownie-like chocolate sponge were contrasted with a fluffy pistachio mouse, a chocolate crumb, lemon curd, meringue kisses and a lemon and pistachio ice cream which helped to balance out the richness and changed by mind about lemon and chocolate, not normally a combination I enjoy.
From the first bite to the last, it’s clear that Staines isn’t just a chef who touts stock-in-trade fine dining dishes we all recognise yet fail to drool over, he has a distinctive style that is colourful, exciting and lip-smackingly tasty. The Abbey Hotel may be a long way from the Mandarin Oriental, yet the fact that his food is now being appreciated in a flamboyant Barbara Cartland-pink dining room with bamboo-style chairs, where formalities are banished and the friendly front of house team encourage diners to embrace their adventurous side, works as successfully as his genius flavour pairings.
Allium Restaurant at The Abbey Hotel, 1 N Parade, Bath BA1 1LF. For more information, current menus and reservations please visit the website.