James Sommerin’s contemporary cuisine is inspired by France though keenly British, loyal to good quality local produce and the seasons, light on the stomach – and unique: “Smoked eel and pig’s trotter? Langoustines, fennel and white chocolate? There is clearly a distinctive palate at work here,” wrote Matthew Norman in The Guardian after visiting The Crown in 2009. Staying true to his own ingenuity has paid dividends: the Waitrose Good Food Guide 2015 commended “food that excites and satisfies in equal measure” consequently giving the newly-opened restaurant 7/10 and placing it at a very respectable 30 in its Top 50.
It’s fair to assume that James Sommerin’s hero is the food itself: “I don’t like to overshadow the ingredients,” he says, deferentially. The key, he feels, lies “with fantastic produce [and] treating it sympathetically.” Although his approach is modern he’s chosen not to deconstruct too much or be fancy for fancy’s sake: “It’s not about having masses of complicated elements on the dish, you want the main element to really speak for itself. When we serve Scallops with Iberico ham, it’s literally scallops and Iberico ham. The flavours are really pronounced and there’s something slightly earthy about it, it really speaks fresh and alive, that’s what it’s all about.”
At The Crown, the Welshman was known for his exquisite pea ravioli, which wowed the judges on the Great British Menu. At his new venture, menus continue the clever flavour combos that brought Sommerin applause. Sometimes they appear revised; the langoustine dish and white chocolate dish admired by Matthew Norman now favours turnip and tonka bean over fennel. Menus are succinctly scribed with just three to five ingredients disclosing each dish – a bold format that’s perplexing to some, tantalising to others. Jerusalem Artichoke, Egg, Truffle is one example; Turbot, Carrot, Cockles, Ginger is another – unexpected flavour medleys that delight diners.
James Sommerin is a local-boy-done-good, a family man whose wife works in the restaurant and whose daughter helps out in the kitchen, a charitable member of his community (in winter 2015, he was one of 14 chefs to help at Chef’s Night Out, to raise money for a local hospice). For as long as his cuisine brings class and invention to Wales’s fine dining scene, his career will continue in the ascendant.