Mr Pernickety has always been a bit of a book punter, and those of you who have read his Guide to Eating in the Ancient Book Town and Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye will know of his fondness and familiarity with the town. Thus it is that Richard Booth’s Bookshop – one of Hay’s originals – has been a regular destination for years.
But when he went there at the beginning of last year , Mr P found that things had changed. There was a new, lighter airiness to the place, the all-pervading musty smell of books that have known better days had somehow been dispelled; clearings had been created among the canyons of bookshelves where leather sofas, coffee tables and aspidistras had been placed so that customers can now peruse the old tomes in leisurely comfort. Mr P was naturally curious and not a little puzzled – the shop was providing what a retail analyst in Canary Wharf might call a “positive shopping experience” – which, until then, had been an unknown approach to selling books in Hay. All became clear when he discovered that Richard Booth, self-proclaimed King of Hay, has retrenched in his castle and sold his original shop to an American – a pocket dynamo and busy-bee called Elizabeth.
Inserting a pocket dynamo with exciting new ideas into an endroit as dozy as a Welsh Marches book town was bound to cause sparks and raise temperatures, along with a few hackles, and among its rivals, Richard Booth’s Bookshop under the new management has become known, with an undeserved hint of scathe, as “Starbucks”.
After this, having, very gently, re-aligned the noses of the traditional dust-and-must book wallahs of the town, Elizabeth set about the town’s restaurants and victuallers by using some of the ample space at the rear of her shop to open a café-restaurant. No doubt most other local eateries wanted to react to this newcomer with the same indignation they showed at Mr P’s not entirely glowing gastronomic review of the town.
A week after Richard Booth’s Bookshop Café opened, Mr P got wind of it, and he and the Lovely Companion pointed the aging Volvo westwards and headed for Hay. At first sight, the Café seems to be slotted into a narrow, corridor space, albeit all white painted stone walls with broad sky-lights and industrial enamelled lamps overhead. The walls are hung with Jean Miller’s vibrant paintings and small glades of aspidistra nestle in corners and ledges – an attractive, interesting corridor, at least.
As soon as Mr P and the LC were seated, a beaming waitress arrived with a carafe of tap water – a practice which always indicates the right attitude. A first glance at the day’s menu immediately conveyed that here was place that was not going to dig deep into the wallet. The most expensive main luncheon dish, from a choice of six, was “Char-grilled aubergine, goats curd, pomegranate, mint and faro salad”, all for £6.50.
Chef Julia Robson seems to have found ways of producing an exciting menu without paying over the odds for the ingredients – actually, any good chef could do it if they wanted – they usually just don’t.
To keep the appetite at bay, the waitress bought a basket of delicious rye bread with rape seed oil and sea salt to dip it in, while the LC chose a “Spinach and feta omelette with a herb salad” (£4.50), which she enjoyed but found a tad well done for her taste, although, she said, it had lovely light cheesy flavour. Mr P opted for “Soused herring, apple, crème fraiche and duck fat toast” at £4.00, with which he found no fault, and could enjoy the counterpoint of all the separate tastes involved. He also indulged himself with a bowl of perfect crunchy chips with a delicious aioli (£2).
Afterwards the “Quince and almond tart” waltzed past the LC’s demanding pastry test. The filling was light and the short-crust “melted in the mouth”. Mr P continued to stuff himself with Banana Bread, which was a little bulky but accompanied by peanut butter ice-cream – an unexpected transatlantic treat.
As well as the welcome tap water, Mr P and his companion enjoyed a bottle of Lou Tribe French cabernet-sauvignon/grenache, good quality and value at £12. With a couple of cups of excellent filter coffee and fine biscotti, the bill for a beautifully cooked and exciting lunch was £32.40.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop Café now offers the best food in Hay and undoubtedly the best value – perhaps in Wales and Herefordshire too. Mr P urges you not to miss it next time you’re in the town and need a joyous lift.
Reviewed 20th November 2010