I remember the first time I ate Richard’s food. He’d been Head Chef at the Four Seasons restaurant in Park Lane for Jean-Christophe Novelli and they’d just opened Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell. I’d met Richard socially a couple of times, had never heard of Novelli and had spoken food (pretty rare in those days with a normal English person). I just had to try this funny, approachable Northerner’s food. It was the best I’d eaten in London and totally on a par with what I had enjoyed in France, when my father treated us to Michelin stared restaurants.
For clarity’s sake I must tell you that Richard Guest and his wife Vicky are now friends of mine. So let me stick with some facts: After a YTS apprenticeship in York, Richard’s first kitchen was the Savoy’s in London in 1990, then Novelli’s Four Seasons (Sous-Chef, 93-96, Michelin Star), Maison Novelli (Head Chef, 96-99, Michelin Star, 3 AA rosettes) then Castle Hotel, Taunton (Head Chef, 99-2010, Michelin Star, 3 AA Rosettes). If you don’t already know Richard, that should give you an idea.
I equally enjoyed W8 (another Novelli venture) and was delighted when Richard and Vicky headed for the West Country. The Castle Restaurant did not disappoint as far as the food was concerned. I did find the atmosphere a bit too cold. Whilst I don’t like loud guests when tucking into my main in a posh restaurant, feeling the need to whisper is not conducive to fully appreciate the wonderful fare on my plate. The dining room was just too old fashioned for me. Its recent closure therefore did not come as a surprise. It is understandable that the establishment is concentrating on the Brazz with new chef Raftery. I have no doubt they will do well with another great chef.
So what about Augustus then?
Richard does fine dining well, his recognition proves it. What he has always loved though is ‘simple’ food that highlights the produce of his great suppliers and changes with the seasons. Whilst he’s never said so, I imagine that when you have an absolute passion for the joy you create, heading a kitchen that feeds dozens of people in the space of three or four hours must take its toll. I always compare chefs to artists. They create inspiring compositions for all the senses. Once on a conveyor belt, the soul gets lost.
In fact, Richard would totally disagree with me. He does not like the “airy-fairy French guys romanticising about food” to quote his book Jam with Lamb. Well he is a no-nonsense Northerner. I have airy-fairy tendencies, French or otherwise.
My husband and I -and many other friends- have been trying to get Richard and Vicky to join the Hix, Riverside or Wild Garlic of West Dorset and the constant sprouting of good gastro-pubs our area is enjoying. Unfortunately for us but understandably, Richard was keen to work with suppliers and a business partner he knows well and trusts. So he opened Augustus in Taunton with front of house Cédric Chirrosel, former Castle Hotel restaurant manager. It was always going to be called Augustus, after Roald Dahl’s character in Willy Wonka.
The Courtyard on St James Street is a great setting for a bistro. We parked a few steps away, the sun was shining, the outside tables were full, wine was flowing and the atmosphere was positively European. The inside is small, simple, comfortable and welcoming. Cédric is attentive, informative and helpful; Richard is nowhere to be seen, kitchen and small team oblige.
I’m not a food critic so I’ll be brief on food description: a meltingly delicious starter of Goats Cheese croquettes on a crunchy mix of salad and vegetables, a perfectly cooked main of lamb with a just-so creamy potato gratin and a ratatouille that made me think I was in the South of France. I know many people believe that Michelin is a load of rubbish. Having said that, once you have experienced fine dining of a high standard, your brain remembers it. Anything after that can be good, few will be brilliant. It’s about the small details, the subtle tastes that surprise you for being put together yet complement each other.
A few tender yet crunchy baby broad beans were a surprising firm bite in the middle of the soft salad leaves; mixed with goats cheese croquettes, it just worked. It’s about the total attention to detail, perfect seasoning (which I find really hard to achieve myself let alone find in a restaurant), trustworthy suppliers, absolute love and belief in what you create. I’ve gone all airy-fairy again. In his Jam with Lamb book written five years ago, Richard says it’s about the right produce at the right time. We know that’s true.
Richard Guest wanted to open a bistro called Augustus. He just got distracted by a few Michelin stars on the way but Augustus is here and well worth a visit; Taunton is not that far after all…