Dinner at: 4 Nations, St Albans
PUBLISHED: 11:30 26 December 2015 | UPDATED: 19:46 29 December 2015
A taste of history works its magic for food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne
If your surroundings are a key consideration when choosing somewhere to go for a meal, 4 Nations Restaurant in St Albans should have it made. This cosy eating house in one of the area’s most historic treasures occupies a Tudor building dating from 1401, with beams to match. Fittingly, it’s rumoured to have been used by the monks from St Albans Abbey to sell the real ale they manufactured in the grounds of the cathedral.
More than that, the restaurant stands in an equally-historic courtyard which gives it an other-worldly air away from the cares of the modern settlement around it. If you want a sense of relaxation while eating, this is the place – just as long as you don’t barge into one of the beams.
Other plus factors drawing customers to this up-and-coming venue include the fact it is independently owned, it’s a family business and the food is somewhat different from today’s more usual offerings – the idea, as the name suggests, is to serve the best of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh fare and, as the website puts it, ‘wholesome and hearty’ at that.
The family in question is the Carrolls, with brothers Vincent and Kevin Carroll, with more than 26 years in catering between them, in charge. They hail from County Cork in Ireland, from where they say comes their enthusiasm for traditional meat and veg and the rest.
Given the small size of the place and the possibility of weekend crowding, I visited on a Thursday. This turned out to be a very good idea, as there were several midweek special offers including a free starter or dessert with every main course, bringing the cost of a very reasonable meal for two to an equally-reasonable level of a little over £50.
The menu, straightforward at first glance, has a few surprises, not least what I regarded as the inspired touch of haggis as a starter (£6.25, above), complete with neeps and tats and even whisky sauce. A no-brainer for me, while my fellow critic across the table was equally quick to spot the salt-and-pepper squid (£5.95).
Slight pause while we considered whether squid qualified for this menu, but we later found out it is indeed found in British waters. Both dishes were enjoyable even if they were preaching to the converted, and formed a tasty prelude to the mains.
If your tastes lay elsewhere, other options among the starters, all at £5.95, included vegetarian Glamorgan sausage with leaves and chilli jam, pollack fishcakes with a pepper and lime salsa, or coarse pork terrine served with rocket leaves, toast and apple chutney.
Main courses come as complete dishes, with no side orders necessary – another reason to like 4 Nations. I chose flame-grilled lamb steak with mini roast potatoes, a red wine and port sauce and seasonal vegetables (£16.95), which did its job without arousing too much excitement. On the other hand, my companion’s hake fillet on carrot and swede mash with a white wine butter sauce and seasonal vegetables (£15.95, left) was pronounced ‘wonderful’, which more than made up.
On reflection, we were too unadventurous – the mains list offered more interesting-looking goodies but we were anxious to ring the changes on recent meals. The other choices were Earl Grey-infused salmon fillet served on bubble and squeak with herb and red pepper oil and seasonal vegetables (£15.95), venison steak with mini roast potatoes, red wine and port sauce, bread sauce and seasonal vegetables (£17.95), and two non-meat options, a vegetarian Wellington with mash and seasonal vegetables and red wine gravy £14.95, and a classic nut roast with roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables and red wine gravy £14.95. Plenty of scope there for a return visit.
We were tempted enough by dessert to share a warmed sticky toffee pudding with caramel ice-cream (£5.95, above); again, a straightforward dish which set the seal on a pleasant evening. Other options, again at £5.95 each, included warm chocolate brownie with dairy hazelnut ice-cream, and Eton Mess and Baileys cheesecake with a blackberry coulis.
Drinks range from English wines to craft beers, of which the London Stout (£4.50 for a 500ml bottle) was an excellent accompaniment for the lamb. A 250ml glass of Chilean 2014 Sauvignon Blanc went down equally well for my companion.
The cost of this meal for two was £53.20 including a glass of wine and two pints of London Stout. Service was extra.
This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and visited by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.