Augustus, 3 The Courtyard, St James Street, Taunton TA1 1JR (01823 324354). Starters £9-£14, mains £15-£32, desserts £6-£12, wines from £24
There are several things every town needs: a good bookstore run by people with serious reading habits; an independent mini-department store selling a seemingly random but vital collection of things for when you need to acquire both an emergency colander and a pair of leopard-print wellington boots at the same time; a well-placed bus stop for bored teenagers to smoke surreptitiously. And a restaurant just like Augustus in Taunton; a place that can serve both for special occasions, but also for an impromptu lunch with a friend; where the food is indulgent and entertaining without being flashy; where the prices, while not exactly cheap, won’t make you gasp. In short, it’s a chic bistro that will pamper you and make the world feel a little better. Now you want an Augustus in your town, don’t you? Very well too.
The temptation for the itinerant critic is to pass off Augustus as a breathless discovery. Since he’s been doing his thing very well since 2011, thank you, that would be pushing him. If the restaurant is less nationally known, it may be because Taunton is dominated by the venerable Castle Hotel, where the late Gary Rhodes first made his name, later followed by Phil Vickery. On a recent trip to Taunton to rock the town with one of my fabulous burlesque shows and feather bobos – get that picture out of your head – the venue offered me a room at the castle. I refused out of good manners. About 20 years ago, I wrote about the place in a way that some would call disparaging. The service and eccentric approach to customer relations of the man then in charge made it a trial rather than a delight. It’s still owned by the same family, so I thought I’d better stay at one of those good beds at the Premier Inn; I like a Premier Inn.
After my extremely enjoyable lunch at Augustus, I looked at this Castle review from 2000. I noted the positive things I said about the food. Oh, the beef feast. I also noted that the chef who cooked everything was Richard Guest. He then left the Château with his front-office colleague Cédric Chirrosel to open Augustus. He is apparently not named after Escoffier, but Augustus Gloop, Roald Dahl’s fat boy. Charlie and the chocolate factory, because he loved his food. Why do those with a good appetite always meet a tricky end in fiction?
The restaurant is set in a quiet courtyard off one of Taunton’s pretty lanes, in an elegant space of painted brick and bare polished floorboards softened by strategic flares of foliage and drapery. There is a glass walled extension to the front and on a hot summer day the doors swing open. There’s a short a la carte with starters around ten and mains around double that, complemented by a fixed price menu with two courses at £29 and three at £35, although you can mix and match.
One entrée sums up the approach: a dome of creamy scrambled eggs is draped in soft fillets of room-temperature smoked eel, the noisy oils encouraged by the heat below. On top is a teaspoon full of shiny smoked herring roe. It is surrounded by pale green fronds of curly, like an altar boy’s strawberry, and dressed in drops of spicy oil. It’s the intensely comforting and domestic scrambled egg, elevated to something so much more glamorous and downright sexy. The other starter is a generous helping of freshly made buttery yellow tagliatelle, the ribbons falling over themselves, spun with heaps of brown crabmeat and a hint of chilli, and topped with a nice diced chive. The buns are hot. The butter is salty and not cold in the fridge. The wine list is short and gets to the point. Customers are relaxed and cared for.
On the menu, scribbled on a blackboard, the promise of “Somerset bundles”. I order them, even though I know it’s a promise that can easily be broken. The real thing is a product of domestic pig farming and the imperative to use the whole animal once slaughtered which means they have to be big on the internal bits of the animal than the unlit flee screaming, and especially the liver. The best I’ve ever had is from Neath Market in South Wales. Historically, along with parts of the West Midlands, it was the center of domestic pig farming from the 19th century and onwards, so fagots became a speciality. The ones here weren’t a toned down, toned down version. They were cleanly offaly and shrill, and came with a brilliant onion sauce and, to remind us of the chef’s classic chops, a beautifully glazed dauphinoise. Have some greens on the side to balance it all out.
The other dish was a piece of turbot, cooked with care and respect, with a cheese and herb crust, and an honor guard of broad beans and new potatoes. It was all brought together by a thick, rust-colored bouillabaisse sauce that was a good hit from the trawler and the dock. In the right direction. And so to dessert, where none of those well-juggled balls were dropped. The coffee, chocolate and hazelnut eclair was an elegant piece of pastry, the work of a man who made plenty of crispy, light puffs in his time. There were the just-restrained swirls of coffee cream and vanilla, and the vital chocolate filling. Or grab a scoop of their vanilla ice cream, with meringue, whipped cream and freshly glazed raspberries, because it’s summer in one of England’s greenest counties, where fruit and Dairy products are in abundance and these things come into their own.
Which sums up the sweet joys of Augustus. Everything becomes clear. It’s a quietly professional operation that does its job with grace and skill. I suppose if you wanted to denounce the terrible inequalities of the world, you could go through the whole of 1968 and consider it terribly bourgeois. To what I would say: we are in a courtyard in Taunton, opposite a hairdresser called Inside Out and a men’s clothing store called Astaire’s. Of course, it’s bourgeois blood, and so am I, your honor. Alternatively, you can just indulge in it. Just come here to stop thinking about these iniquities, if only for a few hours.
Oli Brown, founding chef of Cantonese roast meat cafe Duck Duck Goose in Brixton, south London, is undergoing a complete change of management. With his partner Ruth Leigh, he opened an outdoor restaurant with rooms on a farm not far from Deal in Kent. From this month until the end of September, there will be a series of what they call “showcase events” featuring a hyper local Italian-leaning menu. The restaurant itself will then open its doors, sheltered under a pergola covered with vines and wisteria. There will be four bedrooms in the house (updownfarmhouse.com).
The Ottolenghi Empire has added a Hummus at Home kit to its mail order offering. The kit includes both dried and jarred chickpeas but, more importantly, to justify the £45 price tag, a host of other ingredients including tahini Ottolenghi, Aleppo pepper flakes and za’ Palestinian atar. There is also the option of adding a branded gift box to the order. Visit ottolenghi.co.uk.
The famed Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, chef Raymond Blanc’s luxury boutique hotel in Oxfordshire, has been granted planning permission for a major multi-million pound development. There will be a total of 31 new buildings on the site, many of which will house new suites or form part of a high-end spa. More intriguing for this column is the announcement that the development will include a new bistro. However, there is no precise date for the opening (raymondblanc.com).