April 11 2014

Review: Brasserie Brunel at The Royal Hotel, Bath

Despite one’s views on the SouthGate development in general, few history buffs – or even casually interested onlookers – failed to have their interest piqued by the fact that part of the plans for regeneration would reveal the original railway arches directly adjacent to Bath Spa Railway Station. Now these arches aren’t just your everyday arches. They – like the station itself – were designed by pioneering19th century civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but had been totally obscured behind and beneath all manner of advertising billboards and car park servicing ramps for decades because, only a handful of years ago, contemporary town planners decreed the preservation of architectural history to be bunkum. Ah, how times have changed. But throughout all the changes that have taken place in Bath since Victorian times, one aspect of the landscape around the railway station has stoically remained pretty much untouched by fads, fashion and franchises.

The Royal Hotel – also designed by innovative Isambard – opened its doors to visitors to Bath in 1846. While the hotel has of course been revamped, renovated and kept up-to-date over the years (most recently, the brasserie was restyled and renamed Brasserie Brunel as a tribute to the building’s designer, and the bar/lounge area has been rather splendidly spiffed up too), Bathonians tend to scuttle past it thinking – like many Bathonians tend to do – that they know everything there is to know about everywhere in the city as they dash off to their dinner date beneath one of Brunel’s original, historic arches… now largely home to a totally uninspiring variety of bland chain operations specialising in typical chain restaurant fodder such as pizzas, burgers and spicy chicken. Meanwhile, at the Brasserie Brunel, ingredients are largely locally sourced, service is properly locally-lovely and history hasn’t had to try desperately hard to reinvent itself.

With one Piggy happily parked on a plush, comfortable banquette and the other on a vintage Parisien-style café chair, a proper potted palm wafting in the near vicinity and sparkling chandeliers casting light over the whole, rather elegant affair, we started our temporary Royal residence with two rather magnificent starters: gorgeously al dente poached asparagus on sauté potatoes topped with a softly poached egg and slathered in luxurious lemon butter sauce for Mr Pig, and tiger prawns served on a tangle of noodles marinated in a creamy Thai-style broth (garlic, lemongrass, ginger, etc) for me. Both starters were tantalisingly tasty, and both teemed with the kind of fresh zing that one only encounters when food is cooked to order by someone who really knows what they’re doing. A similar appraisal can be made of our meaty main courses. We both opted for steaks (although braised shoulder of beef, lamb rump and several distinctly classy pasta options almost made it to the pass) because the Royal is rightfully very proud of their kitchen’s ways with their impeccably-sourced beef. So I had a sirloin (that’s the girly cut, yes?) and Mr P had a manly Ribeye, with which we shared sauces of port and shallot (my choice) and whisky and Dijon (his), and thoroughly decent chips, and earthy new potatoes, and mushrooms, and tomatoes, and all the properly correct flim-flam that comes with a really good steak dinner…of which this was definitely one. We then shared rhubarb and vanilla crème brulee which further bolstered the jolly good summary we’d already established with our preceding courses and had a lovely chat to chef/proprietor Mark, who is not only a very good cook but also clearly a very good, very popular staff manager: service at The Royal is exemplary, and definitely deserves a stand-alone mention as one of the highlights of the whole experience.

The bill of our feast for two at the Royal came in at around £70 (including a bottle of superb Shiraz), representing very good value for money. Consider plundering the Fixed Price or recently revamped bar menu, however, and prices plummet even further. Which of course begs the question why, when the Royal Hotel offers the opportunity to eat real food served by real people for realistic prices in historic surroundings, do so many Bathonians go dashing past in the direction of over-priced, assembly line food served in a scrubbed-up bunker? Perhaps some would say that the Royal Hotel – with its ‘proper’ dining room and classic a la carte offering – is rather quaintly old fashioned. Personally I find the hotel’s confidently solid foundation in traditional values reassuring, particularly in the light of the dull shadows cast from the uber-modern zone nearby. While Brunel’s original railway arches are indeed a magnificent feat of engineering, the hotel that he built over the road offers a far more elegant meal ticket.

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