Restaurant review - Groes Inn, Conwy and Ring O'Bells, Chester
Travel between North Wales and Cheshire may not be as arduous as it was when the Groes Inn first opened it doors, but the inn still offers comforting food to revive the weariest of travellers REVIEW BY RAY KING
Centuries before the great 19th Century civil engineer Thomas Telford completed his turnpike road, now the A5, between London and Holyhead and the coast road between Chester and Bangor – building the monumental suspension bridges at Menai and Conwy along the way – a small two-storey house two miles upstream from the latter began serving ale.
In fact when the pub that is now the Groes Inn became the first licensed house in Wales in 1573, there were still 15 years to go before the Spanish Armada sailed. Set amid the delightful rolling countryside of the lower Conwy valley on the road to Trefriw, the Groes has been used as a commercial inn for business and court transactions and as a welcoming stopover for stagecoach passengers.
Today the clientele is rather different: tourists enjoying Conwy’s World Heritage status, Bodnant Gardens just across the river and the magnificence of nearby Snowdonia National Park drawn by the Groes Inn’s reputation for hospitality.
The antiquity of the place strikes everyone as soon as they cross the threshold - 400-year-old timbers, low beams, nooks and crannies filled with knick-knacks; a warren of fascinating rooms, no two alike. There’s a more modern conservatory, charming dining room open in the evenings and a lovely garden, but we took our seats by the Inn’s ancient walk-in fireplace, it’s stove stacked either side by cloven logs ready for winter’s home fires. The wooden staircase above us leads to the Wellington room, so named after the grandson of the Iron Duke himself who witnessed the purchase of the inn in 1889. The deeds he signed are on display in a room resplendent with tapestry furnishings.
Our call was for lunch en route home from the Llyn (the Groes is the ‘halfway house’) and a hearty one it turned out to be. The menu is a catalogue of old pub favourites, served in generous portions, featuring starters like baked garlic mushrooms with Stilton, eggs mayonnaise, terrine with warm toast and smoked salmon and trout with only the briefest of nods towards ‘exotica’ such as crispy duck salad and hummus with pitta. Likewise the mains – fishcakes, lamb’s liver and onions, cottage pie, bangers and mash, seafood pie, steaks and cold cuts – represent timeless comfort food.
I began with Welsh rarebit (�5.75), a retro classic, whose melty cheese topping was lovely and beery due to the addition of Groes Ale and given a rich and spicy lift with a sprinkling of chopped black pudding; simple and uncomplicated but satisfying home cooking. Mrs K’s opener proffered similar simplicity: her garlic king prawns, ‘hot from the grill’ (�7.95), came with lemon butter, dense homemade bread and rocket garnish. When a dish is this plain, ingredients have to be tip-top and these plump prawns in their square dish measured up well.
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For the mains we turned to the daily specials board: pan-fried cod with garlic lemon and dill butter, asparagus and new potatoes (�14.55) for herself; casserole of beef, venison and rabbit with mustard mash (�12.95) for me.
The cod, delicious and falling into moist flakes, was artistically served on the asparagus spears with new potatoes and carrots arranged around it. The sauce was rich and flavoursome.
The casserole, hearty, rich and generous of portion – though in truth more of a winter offering – arrived in a dish surrounded by simply steamed carrots and sugarsnaps (for dunking?) but without the billed mustard mash. I asked for ‘the potatoes’ and was presented with a bowl of new potatoes, again simply steamed. The casserole had an appetising flavour of gaminess and herbs; the accompaniments needed to be more interesting.
We rounded off by sharing a deftly-fashioned rhubarb cr�me brulee (�5.75), creamy of texture and well-balanced between the sweetness of the burnt sugar topping and the tart of the fruit and lifted by a drop of brandy. We drank a zesty, fruit-driven Australian Chardonnay for �15.50 and wondered what the locals would have made of that in 1573 – just short of 200 years before Captain Cook first landed in Botany Bay.
The Groes Inn, Tyn Y Groes, Conwy LL32 8TN; Tel 01492 650545; www.groesinn.com
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RING O' BELLSVillage Road, Christleton, Chester, CH3 7ASTel 01244 335422www.ringobellschester.co.uk
Style of venue Attractive country gastro-pub in one of Cheshire’s prettiest villages.
On the menu Plenty of hearty, comforting food for those with big appetites, but there’s plenty of flair too. Overall, it’s a modern British menu from a kitchen team who care.
For starters, try the satay chicken and peanut dip (�5.95). It’s tasty, very tasty. Crab and coriander cake with dressed leaves (�6.95) got the thumbs up from our table too.
Mains: I devoured a smoked haddock risotto (�11.50) which melted in the mouth and is the most memorable plate of food I’ve had this year. Mr Taylor was more than satisfied with beer battered cod and hand cut chips, pea puree and tartare sauce (�11.95). We also recommend mango and lime cheesecake (�5.25).
D�cor Sympathetic yet modern-ish refurbishment of traditional pub: lots of wood, comfy chairs, sofas and fireplace. But on a sunny day, do step outside and dine al fresco as we did.
Ambience Easy, relaxing – just as it should be.
Service Food and drinks are ordered by the diner at the bar but was pleased that we didn’t have to keep popping back and forth because the waiter took subsequent orders from our table. So all in all, good.
Cost There’s a wide range of fairly priced small plates, nibbles and sandwiches. Try the midweek lunch menu (check their website for times) and Sunday lunch. It’s good value.
The print version of this article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Cheshire Life
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