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Rostra rating: 1
Over the years I have come to regret and eventually avoid hasty remarks and judgements. Thus, MagoGuide has waited over eight months to review our horrific experience at the Grove Hotel Narbeth. This contemplative pause has allowed me to place TeamMago’s experience at the Grove in its proper perspective. I remain convinced that the Grove sucks, but I also realize that (as usual) it was all my fault.
Team Mago was transitioning between Abergavenny and St. David’s. We had been staying in short term rentals and doing most of our own cooking from local markets and we were scheduled for more of the same on the Welsh coast. I was in the mood for a Brideshead/Downton Abbey style break. The Grove seemed just the place. Their website summed up what I had in mind for a night away from short term rental land:
“The Grove of Narberth is a privately owned luxury country house hotel nestled in the heart of the rolling Pembrokeshire countryside with stunning views of the Preseli Hills. At the Grove you can be assured of a warm Welsh welcome and a truly relaxing stay in real luxury combined with great food and friendly professional service.”
Experts have a term of art for my gullibility: confirmation bias. The Grove has won tons of awards since it opened after a major renovation in 2007, culminating in the Pride of Britain’s Hotel of the Year in 2015 and the Good Hotel Guide’s Welsh Hotel of the Year in 2016. It is also a social media darling earning 4.9 and 4.8 from TripAdvisor and Google, respectively. Even nominally sober and objective reviewers like The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith gushed about the place. I simply could not find any bad reviews no matter where I looked. So I should have known that Adephagia was going to force me to write one. After everything I have said about the (dis)utility of social media in terms of travel, food, and hospitality reviews and all my efforts to expose the cosy relationships between “professional” reviewers and their subjects, it was my failure to seek genuine local knowledge that put a big dent in my net worth while stressing my marriage on what should have been a boozy romantic interlude.
So gentle readers, my loss is your gain. Fortunately, when you own the business you still get to toss off a serious rant even when you are the primary reason for its existence. Herewith is some seriously focused local knowledge, leavened with an admixture of survivor’s guilt, delivered as a deconstruction of the Trumpian-level mendacity quoted from the Grove’s website above.
Let’s start with the “friendly professional service.” Throughout our stay the multi-national staff (read cheap labor imported from Eastern Europe) was pleasantly unhelpful in just about every way. Indeed, that “warm Welsh welcome” was delivered in English upper class Received Pronunciation. I did not hear a single genuine Welsh accent during our stay at the Grove. Instead of helping with our bags or even asking if we required assistance, a member of the front desk staff insisted on a conducted tour of the hotel obviously expecting us to be impressed. We were indeed struck by the fact that help with our impedimenta was never voiced in a elevator-free, restored 17th century structure with multiple floors, half floors, and lots of stairs in between. Rather than beg the staff for service they should have offered automatically upon arrival, we culled our baggage at the car and then wandered back to our room with a single backpack and dinner attire on hangers in dry cleaning bags. This act of middle class sensibility earned us the first of many stink eyes from the “friendly professional” staff.
Our room was spacious and well appointed. The bathroom in particular was quite large with a walk-in shower and separate clawfoot soaking tub. The room, however, was at the back of the manner house with west facing windows backlit by a blistering August sun as well as a “view” of torn up grounds along with a crew of groundskeepers making a serious amount of noise. The room was down right stiffling and the windows, which had remained shut since the room was cleaned that morning, did not open completely and failed to cool the room over the course of several hours.
The grounds, especially the kitchen gardens, lived up to their billing.
After exploring the grounds and returning to find our room still sweltering, we asked the staff about a local walk. The young lady waxed rhapsodic about a forty minute stroll through country lanes and paths that featured the remains of an iron age hill fort “with stunning views of the Preseli Hills.” The forty minute walk turned out to be a ninety minute struggle through knee deep liquid cow shit due to a terrible map handed out with smiling courtesy by the staff who should have known better. We are very experienced hikers and were determined to make it through the ordeal. Other Grove guests we met along the way gave up trying to follow the silly map early on and headed back for drinks at the hotel. Smart move. The clawfoot tub in our room proved useful for washing the excrement off of our shoes and clothes.
So what about that “great food?” The Grove dinner experience was essentially an upselling assembly line. You were supposed to come to the bar thirty minutes prior to your reserved meal time for canapés. If you showed up early, the toffee-nosed bar tender banished you outside or to an interior lounge where you languished in purgatory, drinks appearing about twenty minutes after they were ordered, but you were expected to select your first and second courses and wine from the menu and list, so that “you have time to relax and enjoy your dinner.” My double Lagavullin was a Lilliputian single, while wine by the glass pours were just this side of stingy (and usurious for the price). We had to beg for mediocre olives and a tasteless packaged nut mix to go with our drinks. When we did not order the tasting menu or a bottle of wine from the expensive list, the just-this-side-of-brusque service turned distinctly frosty.
The canapés were so mediocre that I lapsed into British sitcom shtick to entertain my increasingly jaundiced wife:
- Gazpacho shot: jumped up tomato juice and the barbarians served it COLD! (Red Dwarf).
- Mini arancini: an oxymoron with no filling other than rice that I could find sitting on a blob of tasteless room temp paste and garnished with a couple of dead dogs! (Fawlty Towers).
- Decent bespoke crackers: with (purportedly) two types of bland fish puree, but I think both were made from my pet halibut Eric (Monty Python).
Since this was finger food, it would have been nice to get napkins along with it, but we didn’t (further punishment from the staff no doubt).
Three breads were offered throughout the meal: 1) pain de campagne–surprisingly good, given its companions, 2) rosemary cheddar–the crust had a smoky taste like bacon that had gone off and a cringe-inducing gooey crumb, 3) beer and honey, the wrong shape and just awful (Fawlty Towers). The accompanying whipped butter was a bland conceit that was very close to what they used to serve at the Little Black Sambo’s pancake chain in my yute.
Mushroom velouté with bacon croutons: It was not bad, but it was not a velouté. In preparing a velouté sauce, a light stock (one in which the bones used have not been previously roasted), such as chicken or fish stock, is thickened with a blond roux. Thus the ingredients of a velouté are equal parts by mass butter and flour to form the roux and a light chicken or fish stock, with some salt and pepper to season as needed. This dish was actually mushroom foam, which disposed of decent flavor and produced a nice textural contrast to the croutons. But how hard can it be to combine porcini soaking water with cream in a foam machine and serve it with premade croutons? Our pretentionometer was already in the red and we had not even hit the first course.
The (ahem) assistant sommelier promptly melted the pretentionometer to slag. First he asked us (again) if we wanted a bottle of wine with our dinner, and when we said that no we wanted wine by the glass, he pulled a full blown Gallic stink eye with accompanying snort and informed us the he “had a few ideas.” We said great. He left and came back with glasses and announced to my wife that she had to have red wine with both her courses. He informed me that I was to have white and then red. Patti likes red but it does not like her. Usually a good som will work with her to find a white that goes with whatever she orders, maybe not a perfect pairing but something that works and respects the customer. Not so with monsieur peigne-cul. He deployed the Gallic “non” not only with alacrity but barely disguised pleasure. Patti graciously relented, but I know a gastronomic tipping point when I see one. The Grove was heading ineluctably for a culinary clear cut of a review.
The kitchen at least knew how to source and prepare foie gras–excellent quality correctly pan seared to medium rare. The roasted apricots were also competently prepared, while the toasted hazelnuts added crunch and a bitter contrast to the sweet foie and fruit. A dish worthy of a first year CIA student. The foie was paired with a red muscadel. It was a great match, loaded with honey and gummy bear fruit with a nice long finish. It picked up the sweetness of the apricots and made out on my palate with the foie. Then the som went out of his way to remind us that there is more to serving wine than pairing it with food. I remarked that, given that he had told us that the foie would be paired with a white that I was expecting a sauterne… “Did I say white?” he reposted arrogantly. “Oh well, I am very rushed tonight. But I am French (pas de la merde Poirot) and while older French sommeliers serve sauterne with foie gras, my generation would never do such a thing. In fact, I hate sauterne with foie gras. It is very old fashioned to drink sauterne with foie gras any more.” At sixty, I was not yet senile enough to miss his point.
Quail raviolo: a flat out disaster. The pasta was overstuffed with overdone quail and topped with a tomato fondue that was an over-salted collision of tomato puree with that foam machine the kitchen seemed to deploy for every other dish. The peas and watercress sauce were completely lost in the shuffle, while the jus managed to hit the plate both bland and over reduced. The dish deserved its wine pairing, an incredibly underwhelming pinot, which the (ahem) assistant sommelier made sure we knew came from France. They would not even mop a floor with that crap in the Willamette Valley, dude.
Lamb duo: stodgy and unimaginative. The rib chop was basically a cost of food move, cook a rack of lamb, serve one chop per plate, make tons of profit. It was a nice medium rare but just about any cruise ship commis can do that with ten minutes of instruction. The waitress told me that the accompanying small medallion of lamb was “like black pudding but made with lamb.” Well it was braised shoulder and bore about as much resemblance to black pudding as foam does to velouté . On top of that the shoulder was very mature, a classic case of mutton dressed up as lamb. The accompanying veggies were actually quite decent, especially the pea puree, which somehow managed to avoid a close encounter with the ubiquitous foam machine.
The som made a decent pairing with the lamb; a Greek blend that yielded gobs of forward fruit, just a touch of earthy leather, and a medium finish. But he again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by not returning to see if I wanted another glass midway through the main course when my glass was sitting empty for at least twenty minutes. I asked a waitress for a refill … twice … but the som only showed up precisely as I finished my plate. Although he was “very rushed” that evening, Patti spotted him chatting amiably with the bar tender on her way to the ladies room while my glass lingered unfilled in the dining room.
Pork trio: The belly, rib, and loin were all cooked the same way with a sweet glaze, which was fine with the belly but got old with the rib and failed utterly with the loin. What is the point of three different cuts of pork if they are all cooked identically? Imagination in the kitchen clearly began and ended with that foam machine. The veggies again stole the show from the proteins, especially the cabbage. The som again crashed and burned on Patti’s pairing, pouring a mediocre South African mourvedre, but he did point out pedantically that mourvedre was a French varietal.
The denouement came with dessert. When we had been forced to order over drinks hours before, Patti had asked explicitly if she needed to order the pistachio soufflé in advance. “Oh no madame,” the supercilious young lady had replied, “it only takes about ten minutes and we want you to have plenty of time to relax between your main course and dessert. You will find that dinner is a very enjoyable and leisurely affair in our restaurant.”
So sure enough when it came time to take dessert orders, we were informed that the kitchen had run out of “our very popular pistachio soufflé.” Patti slammed her menu down and said that she would not be having any dessert in that case. The server asked if “Madame was sure that she did not want one of our other fine desserts.” Fixing the little bitch with a stare that would have intimidated a bar full of meth crazed bikers, Patti assured her that Madame was quite sure. The waitress blanched and retreated so quickly that I had to call her back and order cheese to go with my only recently refilled wine glass. Nonetheless no staff returned later to see if things were all right, in fact after the cheese hit the table we were isolated like a couple Russian oligarchs trying to access their off shore bank accounts after the US Treasury slapped sanctions on them. No one spoke to us when we simply got up and left after I finished my rather decent Welsh cheese, although other guests were herded back into the bar for coffee and petit fours when they finished.
The next day Patti woke up with a red wine-induced migraine when the front desk rang to see if we were going to have breakfast (price definitely not included in the cost of the room). We declined further culinary insult.
It came as no surprise to discover that The Grove published an opening for an (ahem) assistant sommelier this January. If there is any justice in this wicked world, however, the entire staff of the Grove will be arrested for culinary war crimes and given a life sentence to be served at the Veranda restaurant on the Queen Mary 2 (see our post Veranda Grill: Oh God, But I Do Miss Todd!!).
For those readers who have yet to encounter a one rostra rating, it means that you would be better off sleeping in a Walmart parking lot and dining on traffic cones boiled in used crank case oil than staying at The Grove Country Hotel and Restaurant. Any further questions?