Our trip to the Old Spot started - as is customary on the first morning of each holiday the Ewing and I embark on - with our carefully made plans to ‘leave nice and early’ already in tatters and a mostly silent journey down the M4, punctuated by the odd burst of acrimonious finger pointing.
Just when it looked as if the day couldn’t get any darker, we pulled into Wells just at the moment the heavy, dark clouds above finally decided to burst and the satnav decided to throw a wobbly and send us in a loop around the city. To cap it all, the Ewing picked the one local waiting at the bus stop that wanted to regal us with the full story of his brother’s window cleaning business, rather than give us directions to the restaurant.
So, I was thankful, when we finally made it to our lunch reservation, that the interior of this charming restaurant - headed up by chef Ian Bates, who worked with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum in the early 1990s - was one of the most welcoming I have experienced for a while. The room was described accurately and succinctly by Jay Rayner as ‘handsome ‘in his Guardian review, and it’s a convivial and homely space, with just a touch of glitz from the mosaics studding the bar. As a boon, the sun had started to emerge from behind the last remaining grey clouds that edged the sky, and we managed to bag a table on the mezzanine level, with glorious views across the green to Wells Cathedral.
Lunch is a pretty straight forward affair, consisting of a set menu with four choices per course; two courses for £15.50, three for £18.50. The style of cooking is described on the website as’ European’, and is driven by simplicity and the seasons. Most critically, for the terminally greedy such as myself, the menu is full of the sort of Hopkinson-esque food you actually want to eat.
We started with slices of good sourdough and butter and a bottle of cold Orchard Pig cider, a slightly sweet, oak-tinged sparkler carrying a stealthy punch at a, dangerously quaff-able, 6%.
My starter was a dish of late summer simplicity that may well be one of the best things I have eaten recently. Nuggets of punchy goat’s cheese and salty black olives nestled between peppery rocket and strips of roasted courgette - strewn with crisp chilli breadcrumb for crunch - while leaves of mint provided a zippy freshness.
The Ewing’s plate of ‘fish hor’s d’ouvres’ sounded like something from a retro 70s cocktail party, and turned out to be a charmingly pretty and perfectly formed little selection. A very good taramasalata was quickly scooped up with the homemade spiced wafer, the haddock fritter crisp and greaseless, while the pickled herring and crisp cucumber sang of the sea.
The roast chicken with mushrooms and tarragon was sadly finished, and so I turned to the crisp-skinned roast mackerel fillet, served with houmous, harissa, and sweet and sour aubergine. This was a lovely, meze inspired, plate of food, again with the flavours of a late, hot summer, which showed a good balance between the bold flavours.
The perfectly wilted baby spinach particularly pleased, as it is something - like fluffy rice or crisp pastry - I have never been able to successfully recreate at home, usually ending up with little more than a teaspoon of gritty, slimy mush from my bag of fresh leaves.
The Ewing tucked into her ham hock hash, with its fried egg hat and moat of mustardy cream sauce, with aplomb. This is the sort of clever comfort food that cheers and heartens, even more so when someone else has made it for you and you can enjoy it knowing you're not going to be faced with the pile of washing up in the sink afterwards.
Puddings were a given and, despite the quality of cooking on show in the previous courses, trumped the lot. My rice pudding with poached quince was nigh on perfect; the nursery blandness of the creamy vanilla-speckled rice perfectly contrasting against the florescent glow of the sweet-sour fruit.
From the (very) small spoonful the Ewing was prepared to part with, plus the evidence of her keenly scraped glass, the peanut and chocolate parfait was another winner. A pudding whose glorious depths of crisp peanut brittle, light peanut mousse and dark chocolate sauce belied innocent outside appearances.
Service was friendly and slick and, despite our late appearance leaving us as the only ones left in the restaurant, there was no sense of hurry to see us out the door. Not wanting to drag their afternoon service any longer ,we declined the offer of coffee and made up the back steps and towards the cathedral, by now bathed in the warm fuzzy glow of the afternoon sun.
So again from the darkness came light; the famously temperamental British weather forming the perfect analogy for the start of our trip.