On my way from Dartmoor to Oxford I knew I’d be passing through Bath around lunchtime. While planning months earlier, I’d asked my old French teacher (see Black Lace), who’d moved there some years before, if she could recommend a restaurant in the centre of town which would serve a classic dish of fresh fish and which wasn’t crawling with tourists.
I knew it was a tall order and I expected her to say she really couldn’t help but instead it seemed I’d won the metaphoric lottery. “My husband is head chef at just such a place and if you want I can organise for you to interview him” she offered. I accepted enthusiastically.
Accordingly I arrived at Woods in Alfred Street, a tranquil, quiet road (thanks to the one-way system) just behind the Assembly Rooms, one of Bath’s main tourist attractions.
David and Claude Price have owned Woods since 1979, and it was Claude, an elegant, smiling Frenchwoman from Lorraine, who welcomed me to the restaurant. “Most of our customers are locals”, she explained, Certainly the restaurant has an informal, unpretentious atmosphere, with smart black lacquer signage and warm natural wood floorboards – it’s easy to imagine it becoming a favourite, regular haunt.
I have the dish of the day: a classic, super-fresh lemon sole coated in a rosy-coloured butter.
And then came the pièce de resistance, a cold maple syrup soufflé which Stuart Ash, the head chef at Woods had made for me specially. This was a triumph, the rich creaminess cut flavour-wise by mint and ginger, and texture-wise by the crunch from the brandy snap.
Stuart emerges from the kitchen to talk to me as I’m having my coffee. He tells me that his first experience of a professional kitchen was when he’d earned a bit of extra pocket money washing up in a pub. He went on to learn the trade at a catering college in Bath where he’d enjoyed entering all the competitions (a theme it emerges).
Once qualified he says he “dabbled in Michelin-starred restaurants” but found they sometimes had disadvantages. “You’re part of a chain” he explains, “you never get to put together a whole plate – and that’s what I really enjoy”. These early experiences were then followed by an inspired time spent travelling and working, his extensive knowledge of fish and seafood arising from a stint in Australian kitchens.
I ask him about his culinary philosophy. “I like food to be kept simple,” he muses. “I don’t believe in making things over complicated”. However, he was lucky enough to have a very good set of lecturers, in particular Steve Bennison, who taught him advanced pastry skills. “I’m still involved with the college” he tells me, “every year I organise chef competitions there, one for students, and one inter-chef.”
Woods also puts on special events and is involved in the Bath Food Festival. Stuart sources local seasonal food, creating recipes specifically to make the best of what’s available and topping up with produce sourced from further afield when he has to.
“Our customers are very discerning” he explains, “but in the end all they want is just good food”. Stuart is understated and dismissive about what he does, but beautifully fresh, perfectly cooked food is, I suspect, harder to find than he realises.
Woods reopens today after the Christmas break with a new menu including grilled king prawns with red pepper, chorizo and tarragon butter; pan-fried fillets of sea bass with samphire and chilli butter, and confit of chicken leg
with butter bean, bacon and oregano cassoulet.
Stuart Ash’s cold maple syrup soufflé
- 150ml double cream
- 5egg yolks
- 80ml maple syrup
- 1leaf gelatine
- Soak the gelatine leaf in cold water
- Bring a pan to the boil
- Sit a bowl inside with the egg yolks and maple syrup
- Whisk to produce a sabayon
- add to it the gelatine
- when sabayon still hot, make sure the water is drained from the gelatine leaf before mixing it with sabayon
- Allow to cool slightly, fold through semi whipped cream
- Pour mix into moulds or cups, freeze for 24 hours
- Remove from freezer about five minutes before serving
- garnish with cocoa powder or raw cocoa nibs