I’ve always loved Tony Casey’s food, ever since he was head chef at The Chequers, just round the corner from our flat – his dishes are creative, original and beautiful, and he has a knack for fabulous flavour combinations. So when he took over as head chef at The Bunch of Grapes in Bradford-on-Avon, and invited me to pop over for one of his incredible tasting menus, I just couldn’t say yes fast enough.
Only ten minutes away on the train, Bradford-on-Avon is the perfect place to head for an evening out when you fancy escaping the city – stroll along the river from the station to the heart of the town, cross the ancient stone bridge, and make the steep, winding climb up Silver Street to The Bunch of Grapes. It’s a tall, narrow building that has a cosy bar and surprisingly spacious restaurant tucked away inside, combining classic English pub – low ceilings, well-worn wooden floorboards, candlelight – with a fresh and elegant colour palette in white and shades of grey.
|Who Shot Tom Collins?|
Tony had made sure to tell me we should kick off our meal with a few of barman Fin’s cocktails, so we started by ordering an Elderflower Sour (for me) and a Who Shot Tom Collins (for my dining companion) – both were sharp, fresh and delicious, but although I ordered the former, I think the latter was probably my favourite. While we were sipping, the kitchen sent out a couple of amuse-bouche to keep us going: beautifully-cooked scallops, plump and meaty, served with lemon gel and cauliflower puree, and little crispy mouthfuls of pig’s cheese with tangy pickled peach. The combination of the fatty pork and the sharpness of the peach (so often I find peaches disappointing, but it turns out pickling them really gives them a chance to shine) was my favourite, but I absolutely loved the way the scallop was presented – not just in the white, fluted shell, but on a little beach of pebbles in a polished black stone bowl.
|Scallops on the beach|
Having finished our cocktails, the waiting staff recommended a bottle of the Grenache Gris by pioneering winemaker Katie Jones to accompany our tasting menu – it’s tough to pick one wine that works with six different courses (including vegetarian, fish and meat dishes), but this rich, fruity white was up to the task. With its citrus notes, it was particularly perfect with our first course, a celebration of heritage tomatoes with pesto, pine nuts, feta and little dollops of Bloody Mary – a simple plateful of the most fabulously summery flavours.
Next up was one of my favourite dishes of the night, raw and pickled beetroot served with truffled goat cheese, whole hazelnuts, and shards of pastry sprinkled with onion seeds (top image). Beetroot and goat cheese is a classically gorgeous combination of course, but I’d never tried beetroot with hazelnut before – it’s fabulous, the creamy richness of the nut serving the same purpose as the goat cheese when it comes to balancing the sharp, raw beetroot. This was also the prettiest dish of the night for me – a positive work of art.
|Chilled sweetcorn soup – not my favourite but very pretty!|
Our third dish combined dressed crab with a chilled sweetcorn soup, and I have to confess that I’m not a massive sweetcorn fan, so this was probably my least favourite course – I did however love the citrus freshness of the pickled mooli served on top. Our fourth dish also starred seafood, and this one I really loved – cured and blowtorched salmon with gooseberries, avocado and cucumber. The salmon was cooked to perfection – crispy and just a little caramelised on the outside, succulent and juicy in the middle – and went beautifully with the tart gooseberries.
|Heavenly blowtorched salmon, with crispy skin on top|
Dish number five was the only meat course (I love to see a good range of vegetarian and even vegan dishes on a menu, because it usually makes for a little more creativity) and it was delicious – rack and breast of lamb, with broad beans, broccoli and a tomato dressing. It was an uncomplicated dish in flavour terms, an English springtime on a plate, with every element perfectly cooked.
Finally, we came to our first of two dessert courses (this, to be honest, is one of my favourite things about tasting menus – the opportunity to eat two desserts – so if your tasting menu has more than five courses and you’ve only got one dessert, take note). We started with a gorgeously summery confection, combining meringue, strawberry yoghurt, fresh strawberries, honeycomb and miso ice cream. Bit thrown by the mention of miso? I was too, because it’s overwhelmingly found in savoury dishes – but I have to admit, it was a fantastic addition, the salty savouriness counterbalanced by vanilla (making us think of salted caramel) and serving to freshen up those sweet fruity flavours. It might sound crazy but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one – it worked.
|Incredible colours in our last dish of the evening, passionfruit crème brûlée|
Our second dessert course was a little more autumnal, and a serious hit with my dining companion – a really tart passionfruit crème brûlée, served with mango sorbet and caramelised white chocolate. I have to admit that the crème brûlée was just a bit too sharp for me, but the white chocolate was a bit of a revelation – fabulously unusual, with a gorgeous caramel flavour and texture.
To round off the evening perfectly, we eschewed the traditional cup of coffee and instead ordered espresso martinis, my favourite way to finish a meal – when I’ve been working my way through multiple courses I’d just much rather have something frostily refreshing at the end (but still with that kick of caffeine to shake off the post-food stupor). The espresso martini at the Bunch of Grapes is earthy and chocolatey, but not too sweet – just the thing for the end of a meal.
Frankly, if I haven’t sold it to you by this point then I don’t know what else I can say – this was a truly outstanding foodie experience, and I can’t recommend it warmly enough. Not only is this tasting menu the perfect balance, between innovative little foodie surprises and gorgeous combinations of flavour and texture, but the location is perfect for an evening escape – and did I mention you can have all seven fabulous courses for just £50 per head? (If you’re not up to seven courses, you can also find many of these gorgeous dishes on the regular menu too). Go book yourself a table right now and thank me later, with your mouth full.