The evening walk from the station in Taunton to Castle Bow was the sort of preprandial perambulation you might get in many towns or cities. Along the meandering Station Road I went, past countless small entrepreneurial endeavours.
Amid spa and tanning salon, hairdresser and barbershop, kebab house and noodle bar, were numerous small Indian restaurants and takeaways. I counted at least eight on one single strip of road. How much curry can they eat in Somerset?
Then over the Tone river and through an ancient arch I came to the Castle Hotel. The front has a thick beard of wisteria and the interior feels cosy and medieval. There are two bars – one with the brasserie Brazz – and a small, smart restaurant, which is Castle Bow.
It is a welcoming room: the ceiling lights have large yellow shades that look like upside-down umbrellas, and the walls are adorned with illustrated art-deco fashion prints.
There was just one couple dining and I suddenly had the heebie-jeebies at the idea of dinner in there. However beautiful, in a near-empty room there is no happy midpoint between speaking in hushed tones and yelling.
Because unless the other couple are shouting their heads off, your normal tone comes across as loud. And while I do like yelling with friends in noisy restaurants, I can’t cope with the opposite: a whispering dinner for two.
Our charming and professional waitress, Kate, set up two places for dinner, instead, in the bustling bar, while allowing us to still order from the Castle Bow menu. We sipped delicious pouilly-fumé, the liquid swirling beautifully in vast glasses, while pondering the culinary talent that has emerged in the past from the kitchens here.
Gary Rhodes and Phil Vickery were both once head chefs here. I sort of have form with the latter, as I was once procured to interview him at a literary festival. I did my research about this man – long-standing chef of ITV1’s This Morning and husband of Fern Britton. The man who joined me on stage, however, was in fact a former English rugby union tighthead prop.
Dinner began with some unexpected little canapés, the best of which was a lovely little bonbon of slow-roasted lamb, and then a delicious, autumnal little coffee cup of parsnip soup, lightly curried and frothy from top to bottom, with a sprinkling of chestnuts.
The starters were the triumph of the night. My tortellini stuffed with Brixham crab came with a rich, crabby sauce and was flecked with tiny chunks of grapefruit, just on the right side of tart to lend balance to the dish.
There were bits of greenery, too, and yet more of that kind of froth that manages to hold from start to finish. Emily was thoroughly happy as she devoured scallops cooked perfectly alongside charred slices of cauliflower and girolles.
Main courses were less heroic: my Lyme Bay cod was a little overcooked, and while I like the idea of adding hazelnuts (a good way of getting some texture into the dish), there were a few too many, and a squeeze too much of lemon also.
There were nuts around the fish and then more in the sauce jug. So the effect was one of lemony nuts served with fish. The accompanying little chunk of octopus was not acting as an ambassador for its brand; a little thick and flabby. A dish of broccoli was also overcooked.
And while the huge, roasted and fried fat chips were crunchy, they seemed more apt for the brasserie we were dining in than the high-end dining room we had swerved. They came with a vat of runny Béarnaise. Emily’s wild-mushroom pappardelle was also ‘too lemony’.
It’s my job to be picky, but I can assure you that Castle Bow, with its adjoining Brazz, is a lovely, cosy, friendly, good-value bolthole. They can just afford to be a little more exacting with their fish cooking, and go easier on the lemon.
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