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Restaurant review: The Abbey Restaurant, St Albans

PUBLISHED: 09:54 10 December 2018

Honey, cardamom and lavender glazed duck breast with carrots, plums and almonds (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Honey, cardamom and lavender glazed duck breast with carrots, plums and almonds (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Brian Arnopp Images

One of St Albans' newest restaurant exudes an exciting confidence

The Abbey Restaurant burst upon the St Albans scene in the spring. That makes this its first Christmas – always a special occasion. In executive chef Cat Ashton’s case, accustomed to a festive season bathed in 35 degree temperatures and bright sunshine in her native Australia, it’s also her first ‘traditional’ Christmas. ‘I love the spirit of the season,’ she says. As for what customers at the Abbey can expect, she adds, ‘I wanted to do something different while maintaining the traditions.’

The restaurant was clever in releasing its festive menus in good time – they are available from November 26 to December 24 – and ‘something different’ is the order of the day. Deadlines meant I was too early to sample the festive line-up but the autumn menu I did try was enough of an indication of Cat’s style to show me roast turkey and two veg are not likely to figure.

The Abbey Restaurant is owned by Ben Cain and his father Keith and was opened in memory of Ben’s mother Christine. ‘She was an amazing cook,’ Ben says. ‘After she passed away, we wanted to open something which she would have loved. She is our angel and has inspired us with her character, her cooking and her style and class. My dad had a small restaurant in Hendon in the early 1990s and they always had a huge passion for eating out in independent restaurants which was passed on to me and my brother.’

The Abbey Restaurant (photo: Brian Arnopp)The Abbey Restaurant (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Ben played semi-professionally for St Albans FC, which is how the Cain family fell in love with the city. Moving on to become an award-winning DJ, he met Cat while she was a chef at a London bar/restaurant where they both worked and he and Keith asked her to be their executive chef at the soon-to-open Abbey.

My meal was memorable for several reasons, from the simplicity of the menu (four starters, four mains, four desserts) to the mix of ingredients, reflecting Cat’s background from training in Melbourne under Italian and Middle Eastern chefs through Turkey and Scotland to the US. Arriving in England, she became head chef at Petersham Nurseries in London, which won a Michelin star during her tenure. It’s given her a taste for what she calls ‘massive flavours’ and a fierce belief in local produce – ‘if we can’t source it locally, we use local suppliers’.

Our starters were warm salt cod and crab chowder with chorizo, spiced corn and chilli oil (£8.50); and cured chalk stream trout with horseradish crème fraiche, radish, apple and mint (£8, below). Mains turned up two old favourites but with new twists – honey, cardamom and lavender glazed duck breast with carrots, plums and almonds (£18.50, below right); and brown sugar glazed short rib with celeriac purée, fennel remoulade and pomegranate (£22). Beef and sugar? Oh yes; we are definitely dealing with a confident chef not afraid to experiment, a point reinforced by dessert, which was not just a crème brûlée but a Medjool date and Kahlua crème brûlée with fresh figs and walnut cookies (£7.50, far right). All good, some slightly surprising and all properly delivered by a team under general manager Paul Villanueva with support from head chef Matus Heban and bar manager Alex Cleaver.

Cured chalk stream trout with horseradish crème fraiche, radish, apple and mint (photo: Brian Arnopp)Cured chalk stream trout with horseradish crème fraiche, radish, apple and mint (photo: Brian Arnopp)

As for the Christmas season upon us, the Abbey has a set menu at £65 and a seasonal à la carte. Star attractions, some common to both menus, among the starters are likely to be smoked beetroot with ricotta, figs, walnuts, balsamic caramel and tarragon oil (£7.50); duck liver parfait with onion confit, cranberries, chestnuts and toasted sourdough (£8); and Wagyu beef tartare with truffle potatoes, pickled mushrooms and miso cured egg yolk (£11.50).

Mains feature grilled sea bass (£17.50) with root vegetable and tarragon gratin, parsnip crisps and caper dressing; slow cooked beef cheek Wellington (£24) with celeriac puree, mushrooms and blue cheese butter; and guinea fowl (£18) stuffed with rosemary mascarpone with prosciutto, cranberries and burnt Brussels.

For dessert, there’s dark chocolate mousse cup with fresh clementine and burnt ginger caramel (£8), or sticky date Christmas pudding with orange butterscotch andclotted cream (£8.50). There is also a seasonal cheese board (£12) with walnut and fruit sourdough and cinnamon and quince jam.

Medjool date and Kahlua crème brûlée with fresh figs and walnut cookies (photo: Brian Arnopp)Medjool date and Kahlua crème brûlée with fresh figs and walnut cookies (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Traditional it’s not, but that’s the idea. Based on my experience, Christmas at The Abbey is likely to be a fun gastronomic experience delivered by a team who know what they’re doing and enjoy doing it.

Dinner for two at the Abbey Restaurant cost £78.40. This is an independent review by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.

The Abbey

8 George Street, St Albans AL3 4ER

01727 841 524

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