Food review: The Hand at Llanarmon, Denbighshire, Wales
Sometimes great places get unnoticed in the world of food. When diner Andy Richardson stumbled across a hidden gem he was keen to share it...
Lord have mercy on us, for we have let you down. Our mission each week is quite simple: to bring you the best in food, to offer fair and balanced opinions, to recommend venues that you might not yet be familiar with and to separate the wheat from the chaff, the foie from the gras.
If we can do that while cracking a few jokes and dazzling you with Grade A writing and photographs that make you drool, then we're all the happier. And if we can't, you're quick to let us know – the message board on our website reads like a bad night on TripAdvisor if we dare to step out of line and tell a venue a few home truths: no, the chips weren't good, the risotto had the texture of mashed potato and the seasoning was so squiffy that a five year old with a pathological hatred of salt could have done better. . . You know the stuff.
And yet, there are times when we hang our head in shame. There are times when we look in the mirror like Clarence Worley in True Romance and the hand of Elvis touches our shoulder – bear with us on this, we're getting there. Elvis, who is our spiritual leader and gastronomic conscience, whispers: "Clarence, you gotta 'fess up. You got this wrong, dude. You gotta make a bad thing good." Quite why Elvis steals lines from Rastamouse is anyone's guess. But I digress. The point is simple. There are times when we're as fallible as a three-year-old on a rickety ladder. There are times when our view of the culinary landscape feels like it's being viewed through a thick, heavy fog. And this is one of those times. This is where we throw ourselves at your feet and say: 'Dear reader, forgive us, we have let you down'.
What, you might ask, have we done?
Have we confused pea velouté for asparagus soup? Have we mistakenly thought a tiny cube of red-wine soaked pear was a piece of tomato? Have we confused our mutton with our hogget, our bream with our brill, our halibut with our hake, our Agaricus arvensis with our Morchella esculenta?
No, it is none of those things. We have made a more rudimentary error and it is this: we have failed to bring to your attention an undiscovered gem that nestles beyond Oswestry in the mythical land called Wales.
So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage the underrated, the little-known, the undetected and the previously unexposed The Hand at Llanarmon. And forgive us for not alerting you to it sooner.
The Hand is a real treat. A countryside pub-cum-restaurant that swings from high to deep, that offers thrilling gastronomy alongside pub classics that are cooked to a high standard. It has a brilliant owner-maître d', a top class chef and a young team of waitresses who smile, laugh at customers' jokes and make each visit a rare treat.
We may have missed out on the culinary and front-of-house thrills that are The Hand at Llanarmon, but they've not been shy in selling themselves on their website. This is what they say: "The Hand at Llanarmon is an ancient hostelry with all the attributes you'd expect – bags of character, a cosy, relaxing ambience and a warm welcome from your hosts, Jonathan and Jackie Greatorex.
"As soon as you arrive you feel the weight of the world dissolving as the surroundings work their magic. All the classic ingredients are here – old beams, roaring fireplaces, a casual mix-and-match of pine and oak furniture, real ale and good food. The latter is seriously good. Thanks to the talents of head chef Grant Mulholland and his team, The Hand is renowned for award-winning food; an inventive marriage of country fare and sophisticated metropolitan cuisine."
To be fair, we normally reject website sales pitches as unrelenting tosh. It's normally the chance for Johnny Come Lately chancers who buy in frozen desserts to tell their customers how fresh and seasonal their produce is. Unusually, however, The Hand is on the money with its description.
There are indeed old beams, there's a roaring fireplace – though not in summer – and head chef Grant Mulholland is a seriously talented guy. The charming Mr Greatorex, incidentally, is also an exceptional host.
My friend and I booked a midweek supper and were bowled over by sublime flavours, great textures, dishes that were well conceived and beautifully executed.
I started with a dish that oughtn't feature on any pub menu – raw scallops. They were spectacular. Cured in lemon juice and served with the tiniest squares of pear, wafer thin slices of radish and garnished with micro coriander.
It was the ceviche from heaven. It was a dish that Poseidon and his queen Amphitrite would have parted the waves for. And it was prettier than Bridget Riley's Nataraja. Chef Mullholland, we salute you.
My friend opted for a parfait, which was beautiful. Light and intoxicating, we duelled over the remnants as Fat Boy Slim polished off his ceviche and tucked into Mrs Blonde's parfait.
While my starter was the sort of dish that might be found in a cutting edge, high-end, fine dining joint, my main was straight from the book of pub food classics: burger and chips. Now I don't want to come over all M&S advert with you – I can't, anyway, I don't have a seductive, thirtysomething lady voice – but this wasn't just an ordinary burger. I've failed, haven't I. I sound just like the M&S advert. The Hand's burger was made from wagyu beef – the world's most marbled and most flavoursome – topped with deliciously sharp gherkins and good, strong Welsh cheese along with a rasher of delightfully salty bacon. It was served in a bun that was roughly the same height as The Shard and while the chips weren't drop dead gorgeous they were pretty damn good. Rock'n'burgers. As pub food goes, it was brilliant.
Mrs Blonde was just as happy. She ate a cheeky little duck number that was prettily pink and accompanied by creamy celeriac and a sweet-savoury sauce.
We both ate rum baba for dessert. It almost killed us. The rum-soaked retro classic was topped with raspberries and our full bellies very nearly formed a political protest party, demanding that we stop eating any more damn food. Oh, I should have added: the babas were delicious. Diabetes-inducingly sweet, as all good babas should be, we manfully made our way through them.
There's something I've forgotten: a transition course. Mango sorbet with a sliver of smoked salmon was mouth-wateringly pleasant and eye-bogglingly pretty. As unexpected as a phone call from Halle Berry asking you to become husband number four, it was just as welcome.
And that, as the cliché writers say, was that. Great food, a brilliant welcome from a hospitable owner, friendly service and a bill that didn't send blood pressure soaring. Happy days.
We hope, dear reader, that you will forgive us for not having brought The Hand to your attention sooner, for it's a venue that's as good as the hyperbole on its website.
Just this once, do believe the hype.
By Andy Richardson