The extensive wines available by the glass or carafe, neatly scratched on the chalk board, tell you that The Chequers in Bath, belonging to the Bath Pub Company, isn’t your average watering hole and that someone around here is both passionate and extremely knowledgeable about grapes; while a subsequent look at the dining options, which swing from pub classics such as fish and chips to Sunday roasts and a newly-launched gastronomic seven course tasting menu, illustrate the same passion for food, along with the desire to keep all their customers happy.
With the namesake of Menu Gordon Jones impressing diners over in Wellsway, the acclaimed Olive Tree under the command of Chris Cleghorn just around the corner at The Queensberry, not to mention several other exuberant hotel-based restaurants such as The Bath Priory, presided over by Sam Moody, or Daniel Moon at The Gainsborough, there is some steep competition when it comes to tasting menus. The Chequers remain undeterred, however, thanks to an atmosphere that is markedly different to the aforementioned, and due to head chef Tony Casey, who is, I can quite confidently say after experiencing said menu, fully equipped to vie with any chef in Bath.
It’s not arrogance that made The Chequers confident that they could take on the countless other fine dining establishments in the city, I simply don’t think they realised they were seriously doing that, or what gold they had struck with Casey before the rave reviews started coming their way; and feathers are surely ruffled on the Bath dining scene as a result. When you consider that Casey trained under Michael Caines at The Royal Marriott as his first job in the industry before going on to earn his stripes at the likes of 2 Michelin star The Square and Lucknam Park over the past thirteen years, it’s a pedigree that speaks for itself.
However surprising you might find sampling a leisurely seven courses in a pub with wooden tables, pop music and a friendly waiter-come-sommelier with a pen tucked behind his ear, I urge you to do so if you can spare the time. With the tag line ‘serving visitors to Bath and locals alike since 1776′, the Georgians would doubtless be equally surprised at finding such elaborate fare on offer at The Chequers today, yet I don’t suppose they’d turn their noses up. There is something refreshingly, dare I say ‘real’ about the setting, which, rather than vying to be your lasting memory, entirely focuses the mind on the exquisite food and wine being served alongside the likes of burgers and steak and chips (although those are rather good too by all accounts).
Due to them not putting the tasting menu online prior to my visit, I had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised when things got under way with an amuse-bouche of whipped duck liver parfait, presented in an edible miniature ice cream cone not much bigger than my thumb, that was speared into a pretty shingle-filled bowl topped with samphire. Whilst it would surely have made more sense to use a fish pâté, it tasted delicious and the cone added a delightful sweetness which enhanced the iron-rich liver.
People often go on about attention to detail, but I have rarely seen such a fine example of it than the first course of expertly clear tomato consommé, poured from a dainty glass tea pot and accompanied by a crisp shard of bric pastry dotted with garlic aioli. The glass bowl was meanwhile delicately lined with a host of precisely turned rounds of scorched cucumber, red pepper, skinned broad beans, sliced asparagus, basil, both pickled beetroot and cucumber variations of jelly cubes (which weren’t horribly over-set with gelatine), before being finished with micro herbs and edible flowers. The vegetables tasted as if they had come straight from an allotment (one of Tony’s regular local suppliers actually), whilst adding texture alongside the intense tomato flavour. A beautiful yet honest dish, highly evocative of English summers, the dedication that must have gone into preparing it seriously impressed, as did Casey’s obvious love and understanding of ingredients. Each had their own stage on which to perform, whilst making a darn fine chorus.
Two delicate fish courses followed; hand-picked crab enshrouded in a blanket of mouli with asparagus and crab mayonnaise, and a smoked mackerel with buttermilk horseradish and pickled radish which cut through the natural oiliness of the fish a treat. Each course was perfectly spaced, and around half way through, they checked to see if were ready for the next – a welcome touch when embarking upon such a dining marathon. All plates are also extremely well-judged in size, with only one red meat dish; perfectly pink fillet of lamb sitting on a glide of pea purée and accompanied by caramelised sweetbreads, artichoke, a medley of peas and broad beans, a tomato salsa and courgette ribbons filled with goats cheese.
A light yet meaty monk fish dish followed featuring not only the floret of broccoli but the far tastier stump, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, buttermilk and strands of samphire – a clever way of seasoning a dish. Desserts were no less complex or pleasing, my favourite being a meltingly creamy pannacotta with a brûléed top, partnered with a white chocolate crumble and a bold and tropical-tasting mango sorbet. Make no mistake, this isn’t one of your ‘try hard’ fine dining experiences, yet is nevertheless one of Bath’s best thanks to Casey’s remarkable talent.
You’ll note that I haven’t once used the expression ‘gastro-pub’, for to my way of thinking it would be to severely do-down the level of cuisine on offer here. The optional wine pairings are also a must, for the sommelier and chef work extremely closely on this element of the experience and succeed in surprising and delighting with more challenging varieties you might not ordinarily be brave enough to order. You can well afford to go the extra mile in light of what a steal the tasting menu is at £49 for seven courses, for it happens to be one of the finest meals I have ever had the pleasure to review. If I hadn’t just relocated to Bath, then this would have sealed the deal.
The Chequers, 50 Rivers St, Bath BA1 2QA. For more information and reservations call 01225 360017 or email firstname.lastname@example.org