The Walpole Bay Hotel and The Minnis, Margate
“You either get it or you don’t”, says the proprietress, with a retro-skirted swish of dress, and a passion that burns for the hotel like a girl for her fairy castle. If you “get it”, you fall in love with the place, and see beyond the flaws to a wonderful recreation of a turn-of-the-last-century seaside hotel, with all the glamour and excitement that that entails. My husband did not “get it”. So he saw a building still in serious need of refurbishment, with faded and worn carpets and cracked and peeling paint in the public areas and slightly poky, stained and basic bedrooms (they have been greatly expanded from the original rooms, but are still on the small side). A little of the fairy dust rubbed off on me, and I was able to buy in to The Story more. But neither of us was able to deny either the absolute commitment and adoration that the proprietors have for the property, or the fact that The Story is an incredible one.
Margate’s Walpole Bay Hotel was built in 1914 and was a thriving establishment until the craze for holidaying abroad caught the public imagination, and the hotel consequently lost much its trade. Times became so hard that the needed upkeep could not be carried out, and the hotel was eventually destined for the wrecker’s ball. The current owners used to court on the beach outside and had fallen in love with the building; they used to dream about owning it and restoring it to its former glory, but could never imagine being able to afford it. When, however, they heard of its imminent destruction they were determined to save it: so they gave up their jobs, put a business plan together and scraped together every penny from every source possible; when they finally thought they had managed to secure the building, they discovered that the mortgage had fallen through due to poor survey results. Despair yet again turned to elation when the then-owner – who also did not want to witness the hotel’s destruction – agreed to let them have it for five years to see if they could turn it round. They did, and, although finances are still extremely tight, the hotel continues to welcome visitors.
Consequently it is still work in progress, all profits being ploughed into the next upgrades, and one is asked to overlook the obvious defects in favour of the bigger picture. Personally, I would have focused on getting certain rooms up to a very high standard and only opening those rooms alone to the public rather than having the whole hotel open but scrimping on things such as flowers, fresh milk, linen napkins, quality teabags, decent toiletries and suchlike – the small things that really make a place.
The first impressions – after admiring the exterior with its seafront location and flower-filled veranda – were of a cluttered space with rather fussy decor (overblown floral-patterned wallpaper and elaborately-gathered curtains) bursting with knick-knacks – the lobby full of everything from trophies, gramophones and old clothing, through machinery and plants to jugs and cups. I was immediately enthralled, however, by the wonderful old-fashioned lift (with two drawgates) – an original 1927 item which took me right back to some of the old London underground stations from my very early childhood.
The hotel doubles as a museum. It started out with various objects left by the previous owners, including hotel registers going right back to the initial years of the hotel alongside laundry, cleaning and kitchen items dating back to the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Over the years an increasing number of people have donated items, so the fifth floor is crammed with tiny rooms (the original bedrooms and bathrooms), while glass cases line the corridors full of particular, themed, objects – cleaning implements, doctors’ instruments, gloves, a nurse’s outfit, hats, dolls, and so on. There is also even a functions bar and ballroom with original sprung floor. It’s really quite fascinating. Another oddity is the napery collection – another Story, which has resulted in an extensive collection of the original linen napkins that customers have taken away, decorated and returned – with artwork in every imaginable medium, or with poems written on by those of a more literary and less artistic disposition. These are displayed framed in the dining room and corridors – some are rough and crude; whilst others really are works of art.
Our room had bold modern floral wallpaper and a very high and extremely soft bed; a tiny balcony looking out over the bowling green with just enough room on which to squeeze two chairs; the obligatory large TV screen facing the bed; a large wardrobe and several chests of drawers, but a rather boxy feel. A very basic kettle is provided along with PG Tips, instant coffee and UHT milk (oh dear). The room was baking hot when we entered – so much so that we were physically knocked back by the heat and had to immediately switch all the radiators off and open all the windows (at least they opened, unlike in some hotels!). The bathroom was so tiny that with the bathmat laid before the bath one couldn’t open or close the door, yet it was clean enough, with smart if not particularly classy tiles and it did, thankfully, have a bath.
I have to be honest and say that the food was not the high point of the stay – but then, I don’t think it is meant to be. Although the restaurant aimed at being a recreation of an Edwardian dining room, with banqueting chairs, plastic tablecloths and paper napkins, the appearance, I’m afraid, was more of a sterile conference centre. The service from the waiter was good, attentive, thoughtful and friendly (even if his shoes could have done with a polish). He forgot to offer us the wine list – or even a drink at all – but apologised profusely for not doing so when I requested this. I must confess that I was shocked to discover later that he was not actually a dedicated waiter, but also the night-duty porter, and my appreciation of his waiting services rose in light of this multi-tasking.
One of things that most impressed us was the fact that the highchair provided for baby Tristan was spotlessly clean – including the hard-to-clean (we know from experience!) straps – which was a very good sign. The music was also better than one usually finds in restaurants, with Frank Sinatra and other easy-listening bands; although this was interspersed with rather more aggressive 1970s numbers, at least the volume was low enough not to preclude conversation.
Alarm bells immediately rang when we saw the menu populated by too many items for them all to be anything special; almost all options, furthermore, were stuck rigorously in the 1970s, the starters especially. Rolls, which were proffered first, appeared to be of the baked-from-frozen variety, and my leek and potato soup was very salty; barely any other flavours were discernible, and it was of the great-chunks-of-vegetable rather than the finely pureed type. My husband’s smoked salmon was simply served, with a basic salad, tartar sauce and lemon. The salmon was fine, although the edges of it seemed a little stale and dry and the quality of the fish was not spectacular. His duck had been cooked consistently, and was, pleasingly, all meat and not interspersed with lumps of gristle as can be the case. Unfortunately, however, he declared the flavour non-existent, and it had a rather tough, chewy texture to boot. The accompanying vegetables, again, were appropriately cooked but rather lacking in taste. My sea bass had a delicate flavour and was served on rocket with a parsley butter. It was a generous portion, but had a slightly chewy texture. Baby Tristan seemed to enjoy it immensely.
Those with sweet teeth would be in seventh heaven at the Walpole Bay, with the desserts saccharine incarnate: the lemon and ginger cheesecake and Alabama Fudge Cake were both very sticky and extraordinarily sweet.
We were not displeased to be dining out on the second evening of our stay, at the award-winning The Minnis at nearby Birchington. Right on the seafront, this has two rooms, one housing the rather functional-looking bar (with some sofas as well as bar stools in faux leather and wood), and the second the dining room proper. The dining room chairs are also faux leather; and the tables rather basic with wood-effect plastic veneer. The decor is predominantly white (walls, ceiling and some of the chairs); and there is a rather worn, utilitarian grey carpet; colour is injected by coloured lighting on the walls and by some of the photographs – the seascapes are in vibrant colours; ones of people are greyscale. Metal fans above the tables lend an American diner air; the most elegant part of the room is the wainscoting.
Tables are left undressed with just a flower (pleasingly, a real one), tumblers for water and slightly blunt cutlery (no bread knife). We were seated at a table by the long, PVC windows looking out over a patio area with the seafront just beyond.
The menus immediately impressed – there are daily options as well as a set menu, with interesting and tempting choices. The wine list, on the other hand, was basic, with relatively few options for each wine, and all on the cheap and cheerful side, so we went for a bottle of Prosecco (cowards!). The service, although causal, was very friendly and, as always, baby Tristan was well looked-after and fussed over. Bread was brought to the table – nice thick chunks of this, but it rather lacked flavour.
I had opted to start with the beef croquettes, which were very good, with meltingly slow-cooked beef inside and a nicely crunchy breadcrumbed exterior. The accompanying tomato ketchup rather let the side down – it was overpowering and unnecessary, as the croquettes were perfect as they were. My husband described his haddock rissole as rather nondescript – lacking in flavour and with was no attempt to provide a foil of texture, as he deemed even the breadcrumb exterior soggy, but I was personally more impressed by this dish than he was, and felt that there was a slightly acidic element to it which cut through the salty and creamy haddock well.
The pork also failed to please Mr Marshall-Luck, which he again found lacked flavour, which was made up for in excess by the mustard-orientated sauce and overly-seasoned mashed potatoes , yet he enjoyed the nicely steamed vegetables.
Perhaps I was making better choices, for my slow cooked beef brisket was good – two large chunks of meat in a huge bowl full of vegetables and gravy. The meat itself was quite tender and succulent; the marbling of fat lending extra flavour. The addition of pancetta in the dish lent a smoky, bacon-y flavour which was another welcome dimension. The herb dumplings provided a good contrast to the beef and were nicely herby, although too much on the dry side for my personal taste.
The desserts were very 1980s, with a “deconstructed tiramisu” and ice-cream, neither of which particularly excelled, and my husband was also disappointed with his coffee which was served with sachets of UHT cream. My tea, however, was lovely – proper Twinings English Breakfast; a relief after PG Tips at the Walpole Bay Hotel.
On the whole, a slightly mixed meal – yet prices were very reasonable indeed and I certainly felt that my very good starter and main course were good value. And so back we rolled to the popular and quirky Walpole Bay Hotel, a short drive away, and its soft and comfortable bed…
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Restaurant and Wine Critic
Epicurean Expeditions with
The Ambrette, Canterbury
Canterbury is a city that has long held a position of not just importance but also affection in the nation’s consciousness. From its early days as a Roman town through to its seminal position as a place of pilgrimage even today, it has remained one of the most influential and significant of English destinations. To the visitor it offers a wealth of historical insights and revelations, as well as a host of decent places to eat for keeping body and soul together between visits to attractions.
A visit to Canterbury Cathedral – famously, where Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights aiming to curry favour with King Henry II, is a must – both for the historical magnitude of the building, and also for its architectural joys. Not having been in the Cathedral since my early childhood, I was struck by its hugely impressive sense of space – both loftier and also more austere than I had recalled or envisaged. Whilst the numerous side chapels are dark and oppressive, with a rather uneasy and gloomy ambience, the crypt is wonderfully atmospheric – with a far more peaceful and joyful air – and of course the candle, kept burning always in memory of Thomas Becket in the chancel, is most moving.
I must also highly recommend two further, striking places to visit: the English Heritage-owned Abbey of Saint Augustine on the East side of the city – an extensive site of ecclesiastical ruins to wander and explore; and the Roman Museum. Although its entrance down a cobbled side street is tiny and unassuming, the museum is actually deceptively large, spread out as it is in the basement. It offers a range of fascinating artefacts to view – such as an amazingly complete and rare helmet and carpenters’ and builders’ tools, including a trowel, shovel and set square as recognisable as those you’d see in Axminster Tools – and concludes with a set of corridors complete with mosaics; unmoved (except by the warping of the ground) and thus exactly as they were laid out in someone’s house in the first century AD, complete with hypocaust, visible in the previous room.
Other attractions include the absorbing and rather charming Eastbridge Hospital, the ancient (and multi-functional) Castle which guards the city walls, the walls themselves (around which one may walk), and The Canterbury Tales – the latter more aimed at children and tourists, rather than the cultural visitor. A mixture of wax figures, historical re-enactors, mechanical figures and film, sound and light effects, it presents several of the more famous of the tales in an amusing and light-weight manner. I don’t know if I was the more offended, or the guide (clearly expecting a blank look from me) was the more nonplussed when, having been asked if I’d heard of Thomas Becket and what it was, then, that I knew about him, I proceeded to launch into a lecture on the life of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and his treatment in literature since….
With a variety of other museums, galleries and attractions on offer as well, it’s worth viewing the Visit Kent website (www.visitkent.co.uk) to enable one to fully plan one’s trip – but if you’re at the south end of town, after visiting the castle, Eastbridge Hospital or The Canterbury Tales, do treat yourself to lunch at The Ambrette, a highly impressive and polished Indian restaurant with the most superb food, and an extremely pleasant place to while away a lunchtime.
One enters into a spacious room, which immediately gives the impression of feeling clean and uncluttered; a large area by the front door has been kept clear to help maintain this sense. The floor throughout is wooden, and here it is decorated with rather beautiful tiles set into the wood. The walls have tongue and groove panelling painted in duck egg blue, with bold and vibrant floral and seed wallpaper in dark green, reds and golds on a few sections of the wall. There is some booth seating; the rest of the seating – including on a mezzanine floor by the window – is at handsome wooden tables with old fashioned, nicely carved wooden chairs. A long dark wood bar runs along one wall, with numerous old tobacconists drawers inset behind (a lovely, traditional touch); this bar area also exceptionally clean and uncluttered. The service is more smart and professional than warm and friendly – from the English chaps at least, as the Indians are more friendly whilst being at the same time no less smart and professional; baby Tristan was welcomed and immediately befriended by one of the Indian waitresses. Tables are left bare but with water glasses, wine glasses, and a selection of cutlery tucked into a pristine linen napkin. With gentle saxophone jazzy music (not particularly inspiring, but an awful lot better than the dreadful noise in most restaurants), the general atmosphere is relaxed, making for unpretentious, yet nevertheless smart dining with traditional values.
The lunch menu is short – just five starters and main courses and four desserts, but all of these are interesting and unusual – a combination of local Kentish ingredients, traditional dishes and an intriguing Indian twist. The wine list is also good, but doesn’t indicate countries, which I found rather disorientating. There is a smallish but good range of reds, whites, roses and sparkling – I went for a glass of the Auction House Shiraz, which was served at the perfect temperature. It started out tasting a little bland but grew in flavour with the meal, seeming to react and intensify with the slight spiciness of the dishes. The nose was of black berry fruits and leather and tar – quite black; the colour was dark also and the taste of blackberries but with hints of red fruits too – raspberries and cherries. A creamy wine and very dry (the dryness imparting tones of ash even); it worked extremely well with this type of cuisine and had clearly been carefully auditioned for its place on the list.
Amuse bouches of lentil dumplings soon appeared. These were gently spicy, with an absolutely perfect amount of heat, giving the dish a little kick but not burning the mouth. With a lovely crunchy exterior and crumbly interior, these were really delicious; and an excellent start to the meal.
I began the meal itself with the poussin, served coated in spices on a bed of mango chutney, which worked well to temper said spices. Alongside the slices of poussin breast were a chicken ballotine and a type of chicken mousse with crunchy nuts adding an extra textural dimension and saffron colouring it yellow and adding its subtle but distinctive flavour. All three morsels were interesting, flavoursome and worked well together, making an excellent dish all round.
A lentil, ginger and lemon soup served in a porcelain teacup followed as a palate-cleanser (who could ever wish for sorbet after trying this?) – a gorgeously hot, creamy, spicy soup that I had to fight over with Tristan, who, when I offered him a tiny taste, attempted to gulp the whole cup down with relish!
I opted for the lamb pie for my main course (a good choice). This was based on the traditional shepherd’s pie, yet with the mince meat flavoured with singing spices, a thin layer of mashed potato on top, and mango chutney above that. The meat was quite dark tasting and salty – the chanteney carrots provided a burst of intense sweetness which was the perfect foil for the saltiness of the mince – as were also the other two accompaniments provided – sweet, fresh white bread and steamed rice – the latter quite bland with, again, a touch of sweetness. I was extremely impressed by what was clearly a well-thought-through dish, with all elements very closely considered in terms of flavour, texture and how well they complement each other. On its own, the lamb would have been too salty, or the carrots, rice or bread far too sweet, but the combinations offered insights into the chemistry of cuisine that were nothing short of revelatory.
The desserts presented me with choice dilemmas as all sounded rather wonderful but in the end I was unable to resist the lure of the intriguing chocolate samosas, which I accompanied with a glass of montbazzilac. This was more lemon than golden in colour, with a nose of grapefruit and light honey; it rather tasted of the nectar of flowers – floral, sweet and light, yet with a tart citrus bite at the finish. The samosas presented crunchy pastry filled with a hot chocolate sauce. Personally, I would have preferred a lighter pastry (as this was fairly heavy and dense) and an even darker chocolate to intensify the richness – yet it was nevertheless very good. The samosas were accompanied by tea and cardamom jelly which was wonderful – rich, creamy and intensely cardamom-y, and chocolate ice-cream. Normally chocolate ice cream wouldn’t tempt me, but this was full of the flavours of orange and ginger – absolutely delicious. Needless to say, it went down well all too well with Tristan!
By the end of the meal I felt relaxed, happy and extremely well- (but, importantly, not over-) fed, and with the excitement of having experienced a culinary adventure. There was very little indeed that I could fault in what was overall a superb dining experience; and one that I recommend to anyone with the treat of a visit to Canterbury lined up.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s restaurant and wine critic
Babylon at the Roof Gardens
99 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SA
Babylon was, for us, literally a much sought-after restaurant – it took a few circumambulations of blocks of shopping arcades in Kensington to find it, tucked around the corner as it is, rather than actually being on Kensington High Street as expected. Reached through a concierged building, it is up on the seventh floor, looking out over London, with a variety of famous landmarks visible between the trees. The lift takes one straight to the restaurant reception desk, where the welcome is extremely polished and professional, yet friendly, with a waitress waiting to take one straight to the designated table. The restaurant takes the form of a long thin room, with booth seating on the side furthest from the window, a long row of tables consisting of banquette and chair seating in the middle, before square and circular tables looking out over the balcony and affording a splendid view out of the long, floor-to-ceiling window. The tables outside bear lanterns – but not, on the rainy, cold October day we visited, diners.
Babylon’s decor is smart but not overly-ornate – a wooden floor and a palate of different shades of green, from lime to olive, in the striped dappled wallpaper, the chairs and the screen-print-type paintings that adorn the walls. The tables are dressed with starched white tablecloths, elegant and stylish cutlery, a candle and a flower in a silver container. Golden hemispheres adorn the ceiling and discreet spot lights provide the main lighting, with small glass chandeliers over the individual booths.
Bread was brought within seconds of our reaching the table – rather delicious, very fresh and distinctive-tasting white baguettes, with a wholemeal and a black olive roll as well, and served with butter and a small bowl of olive oil with cider vinegar.
Water and an aperitif were offered at the same time as the bread appeared – a glass of champagne and a dry sherry did us for the latter – the champagne rather fine and elegant, with tight bubbles, and the sherry served at an appropriate temperature for the very rounded flavour, generating a welcome feeling of warmth on the all-too-chilly evening.
The menu opens with baked cheeses – all of them immensely tempting; and around eight starters main courses, with a good mixture of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes; all of them appearing well-thought-out.
The wine list was very impressive indeed, with an excellent range of wines from different regions and at a good variety of prices. I decided to go for the La Picoutine 2013 – a very light pink rose, with a dry nose tempered by its hint of strawberries. The flavour was very delicate but also extremely sophisticated – an initial dryness lead into a burst of strawberries and other red berry fruit yet with a slightly citric acidity balancing the juicy berries, and some straw and also spice to give a final bite.
I started with the autumn truffle risotto with parmesan, and was presented with a very sensible-sized portion, which nevertheless left me very replete. The rice itself was immensely creamy and well-cooked – neither too soggy nor too al dente (as risotto can all-too-often be). The creamy parmesan lent a savoury flavour, whilst the autumn truffles, shaved on top, added their own, exquisite, musty flavour.
My husband’s Leghorn Egg was also excellent, although perhaps a touch blander than he had expected. Both the interesting variety of textures and the flavours complemented each other well, and he found it a substantial portion that nevertheless left enough room for the main course to follow: in Mr Marshall-Luck’s case, the braised pork cheek and fillet, which he deemed superbly flavoured and wonderfully tender. It was served with crunchy kale and granny smith apple balls, the sharpness of which complemented perfectly the flavour of the pork. The accompanying apple sauce was superb as well, and he noted that this added an interesting extra dimension to the dish, being a very different flavour from the apple balls. The size of the portion was perfectly judged, leaving one feeling satisfied but not overly replete.
I had been entranced by the list of baked cheeses, and after much heart-searching went for the Ogleshield, which was served with new potatoes, pickled baby onions, gherkins and bacon. The cheese itself was very similar to raclette (hence working so very well with potatoes) – rich and intensely flavoured. The bacon was extremely meaty-tasting and added a further deep and intense savoury flavour to the dish, whilst the onions and gherkins lent a sharper, more acidic note as well as a crunchy texture to cut through the cheese. The dish was accompanied by a large basket full of sourdoughs, walnut and raisin breads and breadsticks, which were good for scooping out the final gooey strings of molten cheese from the dish. The only element of Ogleshield which disappointed me was the potato, which was a little too crunchy and firm and lent resistance to a dish that I would have preferred softer and crumblier.
I’m not entirely sure how we found room for desserts; but we managed somehow. My husband’s dark chocolate baked Alaska was very good, although he was put off by the inclusion of desiccated coconut (a bête noire)! However, working around it enabled his full enjoyment of a wonderful dessert: the rich, dark chocolate was surrounded by a delightfully light meringue-type coating – just enough to highlight the chocolate without in any way becoming the featured artist. Complementing mango and passion fruit set off the chocolate very well – a tried and tested combination, of course; but both fruits were of excellent quality and intensely flavoured, which raised the dessert above mere cliché.
My Velharona chocolate pave, meanwhile, was easily one of the best desserts I’ve ever had the fortune to experience. It wasn’t really a pave as such – more of a rich milk chocolate mousse covered with chocolate crumbs, with pistachio nut topping, the occasional flake of sea salt, a very thin roll of chocolate flakes (that weren’t flaky so much as crunchy), and a dark berry sorbet on top, the berries of which were sharply distinctive without being overpowering. It was most certainly the flakes of sea salt that raised this dessert to an art form, and one found oneself eagerly awaiting the saltiness as a foil to the rich sweetness of the chocolate. Perhaps a slightly increased dose of the salt flakes would have enhanced the pleasure of this dish even further; but it was mightily good as it stood.
Tea, coffee and petit fours were also excellent – the latter offered a selection of a salted caramel chocolate truffle that had the slightly darker notes of possibly coffee or carob; what appeared to be a lemony cross between a meringue and a marshmallow; a tart fruit jelly coasted in contrasting sugar, and a little almondy cake with a chocolate sliver in the middle. All delicious.
Only two aspects of the “dining experience” dampened our enjoyment of a quite superb meal – the irritating popular music present throughout the evening, and our fellow diners – the latter, of course, not the establishment’s fault! We seemed to be beleaguered by loud and raucous office parties, with drunken, football-hooligan-style bellowing punctuating the latter part of the meal. We were also treated to the apparition of a telephoning buffoon who, in artistically creased chinos and casually rumpled shirt, paced, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to and fro on the balcony, obviously desperate to prove to all in the restaurant what a terribly busy and important man he was, so indispensible that he was forced to take long, involved phone calls (using, inevitably, an extremely elaborate hands-free kit) even in the middle of a social occasion.
Do not be put off by Trip Advisor reviews stating that the service is “chilly” – this is emphatically not the case – one suspects that these reviews are written by people who are used to being addressed in restaurants as “you guys” (and, moreover and unaccountably, are comfortable with – nay, even approving of – this mode of address), rather than the entirely more appropriate “Sir” and “Madam”. The service is pretty close to perfect; as are most aspects of this restaurant.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s restaurant and wine critic
Orso, Covent Garden, London
Orso boasts an extremely convenient location just down the road from the Royal Opera House – perfect for that pre- or post- (or even mid-, depending on the composer) opera meal; its whereabouts are not immediately obvious, however, due to a frontage that is fairly discreet. The rather modern appearance of the signage belies the warm, traditional Italian restaurant that will be found a short flight of steps below the entrance. In deference to the surrounding theatres, Orso has stagey elements – lighted steps reminiscent of a cinema and a little cubby hole akin to an old-fashioned box office, while numerous black and white photos of divas, actors and singers from stage and screen line the walls. The colour scheme is a warm orangey yellow on the upper walls and a duck egg blue on the wainscoting, which follows the walls round and also surrounds the bar – some similar coloured tiles adorn the pillars which separate the initial room we were seated in from further rooms beyond. There are rather ornate metal bar stools, and a wooden floor (marble in the entrance – this and the kicking-board around the bar counter recall Shropshire Blue cheese in their marbled rich orange-yellow and blue-black colours); lighting is provided by dim wall-lamps and slightly odd matching lampshades hanging from the rather pedestrian ceiling. This is lined with acoustic tiles (one suspects that this was a condition of the granting of planning permission in order to reduce to a minimum the sound leakage to the premises immediately above.) The tables are dressed in white linen – both tablecloths and napkins, with small candles and appropriate glasses and cutlery.
The welcome is warm; I felt very well looked after even with the restaurant as packed as it was (people who hadn’t pre-booked were being turned away at the door). The only two negative points we encountered at the outset were the chill blasts that reached us, seated as we were near the bottom of the steps from the door opening and closing above, and the gentlemen’s toilets, whose dustbins were overflowing, and the dim lighting which did not facilitate the changing of a baby!
Appetisers were brought swiftly – alarmingly large plates of very moreish battered courgettes and flatbreads, along with olives. These immediately impressed – the courgettes were nicely salted – just the right amount to lend further taste but not dominate, while the actual courgettes themselves were definitely determinable and very pleasant, while the flatbreads (the garlic one in particular) were absolutely delicious; the olives were sweetly flavoured, lightly oiled but not greasy.
The menu offers a reasonably small selection of dishes per course, but a large number of courses, if one counts appetisers and pasta / risotto dishes as extra courses! There were a number of tempting plates on offer, and at fairly reasonably prices, especially for Covent Garden.
We asked for a wine recommendation and were brought two wines to taste, both of which were rather wonderful and fully fitted the description I had given. Of these, we decided to go for the Appassimento 2013 from Casa Vinironia in the Venetian countryside, which is made using a traditional method whereby grapes are left on the vines during the autumn to gain extra fullness. It was a deep purple colour, with a full and intense nose of black berry fruits – cassis but bramble fruits also, along with hints of tar. It offered a surprisingly sweet foretaste, which then cross-faded into very full black fruits – again cassis and blackberry, but also sweeter fruits such as plums. With its deep and intense taste, slightly ashy dryness and retiring hint of liquorice in nose and flavour, it was a very satisfying wine overall and I was pleased with the recommendation.
The starters arrived as soon as it was clear that we were slowing with the flatbreads and courgettes (though I could easily have gone on nibbling at them all evening). My insalata di bufala was excellent – the mozzarella very fresh and gloriously creamy; accompanied by rocket and cherry tomatoes. My husband’s pizetti’s base was nice and crisp although possibly a little on the tough side, while the prosciutto had a good depth of flavour and the rocket was fresh and just crisp enough. He thought it a generous portion, making an ample but very pleasant starter.
The sea bass which I had ordered as my main course was, on the other hand, not a particularly large portion – which at first pleased me but I actually found on fairly easily clearing my plate that I could have done with a slightly larger sized fish! At first I found the taste slightly flat but as the meal progressed I found myself increasingly satisfied by it, with its slightly crunchy and salted exterior. Tristan absolutely adored it and wolfed it down in a way that I would never have expected from a nine-month old baby – high praise indeed (and of course this might also have had something to do with my wish for a larger portion)! It was accompanied by a mixture of new potatoes, slightly al dente green beans, very intensely flavoured and sweet roasted tomatoes and black olives.
Mr Marshall-Luck’s pork was slightly blander than he would have liked; but very tender with good crisp crackling that demanded savagery to eat it properly (cutting with a knife and fork well nigh impossible!); the accompanying roast potatoes were good – crunchy on the outside, melting tenderness on the inside, with a full flavour. The cabbage with carrot was surprisingly sweet and worked well with the pork, and especially with the gravy, which was very dark and rich and intensely flavoured. On the whole, we both very much enjoyed our main courses (as did the baby).
The dessert choices were quite tantalising – as was the selection of dessert wines and grappas. I am inherently incapable of resisting ice wines, so went for a glass of this on spotting it on the menu. It was sharper than I expected, with an intense nose of honeyed grapefruit, and a taste that combined a dark honey with predominantly citrus flavours. The highly chilled serving was good, as it suited the wine.
Our desserts themselves (once we had managed to make a decision) were absolutely spectacular. The flourless chocolate torte was rich, very dark and intense, gloriously moist, superbly light and very worryingly moreish. It was presented alongside kumquats and mascarpone, which worked extremely well with the cake. My tiramisu, meanwhile, was extravagantly creamy; served in a glass, with the spongy layer at the bottom and topped with rich, thick and sweet mascarpone, it worked very well indeed.
This is most certainly a restaurant that I look forward to returning to on our next visit to the Royal Opera House or local concert, and is one that I can heartily recommend to others.
Willersley Hill, Broadway, WR12 7LF
Situated just outside the quintessential-Cotswolds market town of Broadway and conveniently sited for walking the glorious countryside all around, Dormy House Hotel was formerly a farmhouse (it must have been a pretty impressive one!), dating from the seventeenth century. It retains many original features, including its wonderful golden-coloured stone (a prominent feature both inside and out); magnificent stone fireplaces – with open fires blazing away on this damp November evening – and oak panelling, with beautiful carved detail. There are three lounges to choose from, whither diners are ushered for pre-prandial drinks on elegant sofas and comfortable armchairs. Each room has its own decor and feel – one is more contemporary, with clean lines, bold colouring and contemporary furniture and mirrors; one features a stone wall as well as the great, original, main fireplace; and the one we settled in has more of a library feel with the wooden panelled walls painted a dark green-y blue. Plants – both live and pressed – are a predominant feature of this room, from pot plants to floral arrangements. Atmospheric lighting is provided by candles and lamps; hessian carpets are overlaid with rugs and – pleasingly – board games are also provided for guests to enjoy.
The staff at once impressed with their professional and polished but nevertheless very friendly manner (they were especially kind to baby Tristan). All were immaculately dressed and attentive – top marks here.
Our drinks, once ordered, soon arrived, along with delicately flavoured – and rather moreish by husband’s reaction – vegetable crisps. My kir royale was rich and crisp with a rich and sweet bite; my husband’s “dry sherry” was actually rather too sweet for him – more of a pale cream than a fino, but was refreshing nevertheless. The only source of irritation was the music – it wasn’t too loud but the pop-y beats intruded on what would otherwise have been a relaxed atmosphere. One fears that the choice of music may be to cater to the tastes of the generally young and trendy clientele (none of whom, we noted, was suitably attired, my husband being the only guest actually wearing a tie). One would really have hoped for classical music or light jazz or even easy listening in a country house hotel atmosphere – something a little more refined at least!
The hotel has two restaurants, both under head chef Jon Ingram: the formal Garden Room and the rather more relaxed Potting Shed. We were seated in the Garden Room – a reasonably large room overlooking the gardens, appropriately enough. This room also has a contemporary air, with modern floral fabric wallpaper – a bold but basic design in several shades of green; green velvet banquettes; simple wooden tables; modern grey chairs. There is no table linen, but simply a tealight candle in an ornate glass and fresh flowers on each table. Centrally placed is a vibrant display of flowers, while Art Deco-inspired wooden screening separates sections of the restaurant. The flooring is also wooden, and the only wall adornment are simple mirrors and slightly bizarre wall lights sporting hundreds of cream grassy spines.
Wine first – we chose a relatively dry Gewürztraminer. With its classic nose of lychee, very delicate flavour (lychee predominating here too), a foretaste of mint and bite of darkness – black pepper and even a slightly unusual hint of tar underlying the lychee and peach – it was quite extraordinary and really rather good.
Bread was brought almost at once, with a choice of three types – black olive, white semolina and granary rolls. All were excellent; served warm and clearly freshly baked, with superb flavours and full-flavoured butter, too.
We were not brought any amuse-bouches, which slightly surprised me. My husband rather uncharitably surmised that this might be because the clientele might not be aware of dining etiquettes and the proffering of an extra, unchosen course, might even engender an embarrassing confusion in them.
The starters were fairly small in terms of size, yet very good nevertheless: my smoked duck breast along with roast peaches was excellent, with an appropriately subtle smoked flavour, and Mr Marshall-Luck’s venison was delicately flavoured, albeit very peppery, and more of a Carpaccio than the pastrami denoted. The accompanying salad was an interesting combination of flavours and textures which complemented the venison well. My husband’s only regret was that there was not slightly more in the helping – he found it one of those servings that looks rather deserted and forlorn on the plate.
The main courses were also extremely good – the rabbit was wonderfully flavoured, and not at all ‘gamey’; a very light meat which was, nevertheless, immensely satisfying. It came served on a bed of spinach with fondant potatoes and roast carrots, all of which were equally excellent, the servings being well proportioned and no flavour overly intruding, although there was a definite and fitting accent on the meat. I’m afraid that my husband wasn’t allowed to enjoy the best bit of this, his meal – the filo pastry rabbit parcel (tender and flavoursome shreds of rabbit meat in a crisp and crunchy parcel), as I snaffled it as soon his plate arrived!
My pheasant was also superbly flavoured and featured a well-chosen variety of textures, with its complementing vegetables and also a rather interesting dried fruit puree (possibly strawberry). Improbable as it sounds, this worked excellently with the meat, bringing out the flavours and adding a new and unexpected dimension. As well as wedges of roast pheasant, there was also braised meat mixed with a sliced brassica which worked extremely well – very flavoursome and well-offset by the shredded, dark-tasting cabbage.
The final course of the meal also did not disappoint, as my husband’s apple soufflé was absolutely outstanding in every way. A deliciously light (feather-light, one might almost say) soufflé, infused with apple and with a pool of apple puree at its base, it came with warming and delicately flavoured cinnamon custard, of which there was enough to allow generous pourings into the basin containing the soufflé. A richly flavoured vanilla ice-cream complemented the dish beautifully.
I opted for the cheese course – one is offered a choice of five out of eight cheeses – I was particularly impressed with my Lord of London, Cremet and Smoked Cherry Wood, but all the cheeses (which, incidentally, were served with de-stringed celery, grapes and Fudges biscuits) were very individual, characterful and idiosyncratic – yet I would nonetheless have preferred a full cheese trolley. I indulged in a dessert wine with the cheese – a Noble Late Harvest. It was golden in colour and with a nose of intense mint and fat, juicy, honeyed sultanas. The flavour was deep and intensely-honeyed – but a darker honey, such as manuka. There was also spice – quite a bite of white pepper and even chilli alongside the searing sweetness of the sun-drenched raisins. Interesting blend of sweetness and spice.
We had tea and coffee sent up to our room afterwards – the tea was very good; the coffee reasonable (though not strong enough for my husband as usual), and a trio each of very sweet petit fours was a pleasant addition.
Our suite – The Snug – was a slight surprise after the rather traditional and gloriously old-fashioned entrance hall, being contemporary in style and decor, with a colour scheme of grey and cream – the sofa, bed, carpets, walls and curtains all following similar shades. The plus side of this meant a superb bathroom – with an utterly fabulous huge, deep metal bath which filled, it seemed, in almost seconds, and a monsoon shower. It also meant a Nespresso machine (much to Mr Marshall-Luck’s delight), whilst I was particularly impressed by the top-quality tea pyramid nets with a choice of Darjeeling, Jasmine and English Breakfast, and the rather nice crunchy oat biscuits, too. The downside was the large television screen in the sitting area (which had room enough for a sofa, chairs and desk) – but, again, these contraptions would no doubt be screamed for by clientele should they not be provided. And, actually, I must say that the i-pad thing with a button to press to request fresh milk was rather nifty…. I also rather liked the owl theme – on placemats; doorstops; little recycled owl ornaments, and suchlike (the owl also makes an appearance on the hotel’s logo). Although the three elements of the suite were slightly on the smallish side it was, nevertheless, fairly cosy and snug, especially when lit by the numerous lamps provided. Furthermore, it was all very comfortable, with everything provided one might wish for (including a generous number of shampoos, conditioners, body creams, slippers and bathgowns). It was a rare example of everything being pristine too – no exposed pipework or fraying carpets here – all clean and crisp – and a huge and deep bed to induce Morpheus….
Breakfast the next morning was back down in the Garden Room. A fine spread; and I was particularly impressed by the help-yourself-to-Bloody-Mary-or-Bucks-Fizz counter, and gladly indulged in the former. There were also buffet tables of cereals, juices (in little bottles to be taken back to the table), and cheeses and hams – these were excellent and constituted a good selection. Tea and coffee was brought to the table – nice tea, although my husband found the coffee a little on the weak side (catering for British rather than Continental tastes, unfortunately.) There was also a good choice of hot options which were served at the table (at which point in time my husband started muttering about chafing dishes and the fact that a gentleman shouldn’t be served at breakfast). The smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on brioche were wonderfully light (albeit still filling); and the full Dormy very satisfying: the quality of the sausage and bacon was excellent; the fried bread was indulgent without being over-greasy; and there were nicely-flavoured sautéed potatoes. The toast was also excellent; home-baked bread, evidently, and brought in an insulated bag which added a nice touch of rusticity.
After a hearty breakfast we retired to the spa, where there is a further eatery. The spa is an entire separate wing, and includes a lounge area and restaurant, the central feature of which is a circular fireplace, blazing away, with electrically operated circulater glass which descends to allow one to top up with wood – very clever. The seating here is on chaise longues, sofas and arm chairs with low tables, but there is also extensive decking area outside with wicker sofas and sun chairs and tables. The palate is greys, greens and blues. Downstairs one finds the pool area, which also encompasses a series of saunas and hammams, and a very smart shower that emulates Caribbean storms (great fun). There is also a gym, and a series of treatments rooms where I enjoyed a deep tissue back massage in which restful and relaxing surroundings the masseuse applied some stringent force to unknot congested and tense muscles, as requested. The spa restaurant serves sandwiches, drinks – specialising in both soft and alcoholic smoothies, and a salad buffet lunch, with a variety of different salads, a bake, lots of different nuts and seeds and condiments, and dessert. I took advantage of the buffet lunch and found it all very delicious as well as admirably healthy. The atmosphere in the spa restaurant / lounge is so relaxing that one could conceivably spend an entire day here, pottering between pool and lounge with a book and a long lazy lunch. We certainly found it immensely difficult to summon up the will to drag ourselves away from what had been an extremely enjoyable, hospitable and tranquil stay. With excellent food, kind and attentive staff and smart surroundings, one was able to forget the worldly pressures for an all-too-brief time.
Epicurean expeditions with
GB Bar and Grill
The Shard dominates the street view on the approach to GB Grill and Bar in Southwark, typifying an area of south east London that is currently undergoing much regeneration, and into which young, buzzy and trendy outlook this outstanding restaurant fits very comfortably indeed.
The interior of GB Grill and Bar is laid-back industrial-modern, with seating a mixture of tables around which cluster railback chairs with tie-on cushions and American-diner-style booths. We were led to such a booth, above which hung a large fabric lightshade with the rather pretty floral design from inside projected out through the translucent fabric. This differs from the lighting in the other areas of the restaurant, with industrial pendant lights in the fully-glazed frontage, and elsewhere wires draped from a central ceiling point with reflector bulbs ensuring an adequate ‘spread’ of light without glare; angled recessed lights complement the effect. Tables are simply but effectively dressed – the bare wood free of tablecloths and trappings; simple, unfussy cutlery; a single candle on each table; and tumblers for water. The menus are printed on heavyweight (presumably recycled) brown paper, which also act as placemats. The popular music present when we entered (rather blaring and intrusive) soon changed to an enjoyable jazz (Ella Fitzgerald / Oscar Peterson-inspired), which was played at a discreet volume so as to be enjoyable but not hamper conversation.
The service is very good: informal and chatty but nevertheless helpful and attentive. Very good care was taken of young master Tristan, with the extremely friendly East-ender who looked after us first offering a high chair and then bringing big padded cushions to raise him up more to our level on the bench; whilst a Spanish waitress brought him a toy bus to play with and – movingly – talked affectionately to him in her native tongue.
The menu offers a choice of six starters plus a bread box (several of these are vegetarian and a couple fish-orientated); while mains comprise four non-grill items (we both went for one of these), the pie of the day and fish of the day, two types of steak, an Angus burger, and rotisserie chicken (half or whole). There are various tempting side dishes on offer as well.
The wine list (printed on an A4 sheet of the same paper as the menu and displayed on a clipboard), like the menu, is relatively short, with only eleven each of red and white wines, two roses and six sparkling; one suspects that as many clientele order cocktails as wine – several were specifically mentioned on the wine list, and a full cocktail list was also available. Back to the wine list (not being about to drink cocktails with our meals!): France probably predominates, but Italy, England, South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand, Spain and Australia also feature. There are very brief but nevertheless helpful descriptions for each wine.
We went for a Malbec Torrontes, Malbrontes, 2013 from Mendoza, Argentina, which was a very dark purple – verging on black – in colour, with a dark and very spicy nose featuring black berry fruits and a hint of tar and liquorice. The taste was rich and full, and very peppery indeed – oodles of black pepper hit the palate first and black fruit, tar and leather followed after. It was possibly just a tiny bit harsh, but mellowed with time and was generally an impressive bottle.
For my starter (here called small plates) I chose the hog shank and savoy cabbage terrine – and my already not unfavourable impressions of GB Grill and Bar rocketed. It was quite exquisite – very moist and meaty and intensely full-flavoured: the layers of meat in the terrine extremely porcine, whilst the stripes of savoy cabbage seemed to hold the very essence of that often under-rated brassica, denoting the freshest and best of ingredients. It was accompanied by pickled giroles on what tasted like a celeriac puree, which was gloriously creamy and worked extremely well to temper the (welcome) saltiness of the pork. The chervil root in the puree added a further and well-thought-through dimension with lovely crunchy morsels of intense herbiness.
My husband’s onion and cider soup with cheesy sourdough toast was pronounced equally excellent and really hit the spot after giving a long and strenuous concert (he being a concert violinist). Although quite delicate, it sported a lingering and sustained impact of flavour which rendered it most satisfying. The sourdough toast, too, was excellent, with just enough cheese to lift it above the ordinary, and the whole beautifully light. My husband noted that I should strongly recommend this to any potential patrons of the establishment as a starter – it was light enough to ensure there is plenty of room for the following food, but substantial enough to take the edge off one’s appetite and to enable one to view the rest of the meal with pleasurable anticipation. However, if I have now committed myself to recommending dishes, I must honestly say that I don’t believe that anything could beat the terrine!
The main courses were good too – I opted for the oak smoked and roasted Scottish venison, which was served slightly pinker than I would have liked but had a stunning taste, rich and salty and very deep and intense. The chef later informed us that it had been home cold- smoked with olive oil and rock salt to engender the depth of flavour. One received a very generous portion too, with thick, chunky slices. The accompanying blackberry sauce was very fruity and seeped into the anise carrot puree, which was consequently slightly more blackberry favoured than anything else. The two spires of herb dumplings (some emulation of the Shard going on here?) were very herby, but a little too dry for my palate. The final element of the dish was a small portion of rich spinach. As a whole, all elements worked well to complement each other.
Mr Marshall-Luck’s roast pork belly was gloriously tasty, wonderfully tender and just salty enough, with some deliciously crisp crackling to complete the dish. The meat used by GB Grill and Bar is from a Suffolk farm, marinated overnight to ensure depth of flavour, then blasted at high heat before being slow-roasted at a lower temperature to produce the intense taste. All very impressive.
No desserts tempted me (being more of a savoury person) but I found myself yearning for a little salad, so the accommodating staff combined a starter and cheese course for me, presenting me with a wooden board of Cornish yarg – quite delicately flavoured but delicious nevertheless, alongside red grapes and a baby gem salad with a slightly sharp dressing which cut through the creaminess of the cheese well.
My husband took up the opportunity to sample all the desserts; expecting tiny portions of each, he was slightly nonplussed to be presented with four seemingly full-sized puddings! He pronounced them all absolutely superb: the crumble was deliciously fruity with a light yet nicely-textured cinnamon-y topping; and the pear and almond tart was buoyant, fresh and moist, with the (extremely alcoholic) rum ice-cream providing an effective foil. In the chocolate pudding with drunken cherries, the sponge was perhaps a fraction on the heavy side, but boasted an intense chocolate flavour, well complemented by the cherries which were steeped in kirsch and nestled on a bed of whipped cream. He concluded with the lemon and rosemary posset which was wonderfully light, with a subtle and distinctive flavour. It was presented topped with a compote of berries, the slight tartness of which threw the flavour of the posset itself into perfect relief.
On the whole, it was an outstanding meal, and on top of the excellent food we had been made to feel very welcome. I must confess that it this is not the sort of restaurant that we would have normally visited, tending to go for establishments that are less trendy and modern and more elegant and old-fashioned (less vibe and more timeless classic) – yet I am very glad we did visit as we would most definitely have missed out on something rather special. Highly recommended.
… with Em Marshall-Luck
Summer Lodge Hotel and Restaurant
There are few establishments that I have regretting leaving as much as Summer Lodge Hotel and Restaurant, an unassuming and cosy gem tucked away in rural Dorset, which combines a relaxed atmosphere with charming surroundings and the finest of foods.
The hotel is set in Evershot (a traditional village which has the blessing of having been able to cling on to all its amenities including pub, school, church and post office), and is approached by a short drive lined with flowering hydrangeas. The cream buildings that form the hotel, with climbers trained up the walls, have quite a homely feel about them – the fact that they are slightly less than pristine adds an appeal. The initial welcome is very warm, and the reception area itself is more informal and inviting than polished and swanky, most likely better suiting a hotel that has such a laid-back air. We were taken to our room – actually a house at the edge of the gardens with sitting area, filled mainly in our case by a cot (there was also a baby gate at the top of the staircase so this is clearly a child-friendly house); small bedroom; double bedroom; and bathroom. The bathroom was probably the largest room and provided quite a stark contrast to the other rooms. All modern, pristine and smart, with huge monsoon shower, free-standing bath, modern beige-coloured tiling and mirrors everywhere (including on the slopes of the ceiling), the bathroom was let down only by the linoleum fake-tiled floor and the exposed pipework under the sinks. The other rooms on the other hand are not sleek, swish and modern, but old-fashioned, homely and just very slightly worn – a fraying carpet here; an obvious stain there. Fabric wallpaper in either a traditional tweedy green, as in the small sitting area, or dark red, in the bedrooms, lends a further (not unwelcome) antiquated atmosphere. The furniture is dark wood antiques – including a large desk in the bedroom and plenty of drawer and wardrobe space, although the room itself is quite small and there is otherwise not a great deal of space. All that one would expect from a top quality hotel is also present – iron and ironing board, safe, dressing gown, slippers and rather lovely aromatic toiletries (and, unfortunately, televisions – one in the bedroom and one in the sitting area). The overall sensation of being stationed in this house is definitely of being cloistered, but with a slightly exciting sense of a cosy isolation – as if in a treehouse padded with comfortable cushions and duvets far away from any other being.
The dining room also has a rather old-fashioned, refined feel – smart but comfortable and familiar, with its fabric floral and bird-themed wallpaper in beige, red and pinks; pink and red patterned carpet; red chair coverings over dark wood chairs; and ribbons forming a cross on the white tablecloths. The floral theme is continued above one with paintings of individual flowers pasted onto the white ceiling. Giant terracotta horses are mounted on the low wall dividing the two sections of the dining room, and the tables are dressed with silver ornamental pheasants as well as plates bearing a pheasant and the hotel name. There are old paintings of cockerels on one wall; botanical line drawings of fish and fungi on others. Large windows look out over the gently landscaped gardens, carefully tended to provide bursts of colour, and with rather appealing hammocks and swinging benches. Mirrors also abound (rather tarnished), and lighting is provided by wall-mounted pairs of lights with dark red shades set on bronze moulded lozenges. The service is polished – formal and attentive. We were pleased and touched by the great and friendly care provided with regard to young master Tristan, who was carefully buckled in to the high chair by the French waiter and then surrounded by cushions for comfort. The menus were provided and explanations of them offered at the same time.
There are four different menus that one can choose between – the “surprise”, where one is surprised by six mystery courses; the tasting menu of six courses (accompanied by selected wines if one desires); the à la carte and the set menus. The set menu provides good value, with a choice of one of four dishes per course, while the à la carte offers a choice of around six dishes per course – including a fair amount of fish and seafood as well as a vegetarian option. My starter came from the set menu; the rest of our choices from the à la carte, although we were severely tempted by the tasting menu.
Amuse-bouches appeared shortly – roasted tomato and goats cheese soup, which was rich and creamy if not particularly intensely flavoured; rather moreish cheese straws, hummous on toast, and a delicious feta and pea concoction on a spoon. These were nicely presented, and offered a very pleasant range of different textures and flavours: pleasing. A second amuse-bouche, following soon after and comprising a flavoursome salmon mousse accompanied by celeriac, was a very pleasant surprise.
There was a good choice of bread rolls – granary, onion, goats’ cheese and olive – all fresh, and with two types of butter.
Wines were being chosen for us from the extremely extensive and highly impressive wine list; proper red wine glasses were brought, and we were offered a 2012 Bouchard Finlayson “Galpin Peak” Pinot Noir from the Western Cape, South Africa. It was cherry-coloured and boasted a nose which spoke of a maturity that it had not gained in physical years. Dark notes predominated – ash and oak and a little tar. The taste was also impressive – an initial burst of red and dark berry fruits including red currant and cherry, followed by a lingering aftertaste of the more mineral elements, including ash, tar and leather. The wine was rich and smooth, its taste also indicating the maturity initially gauged by the nose. Quite heavy-bodied for a pinot noir, it was altogether a pleasant, rounded and enjoyable wine.
I then commenced with a ham hock terrine, which was appropriately meaty and full-flavoured – its innate saltiness tempered by the accompanying apricot. My husband’s slow cooked beef rib was exquisite – melting and immensely flavoursome, with a marbling of succulent fat. It was served with fluffy potato balls and a pesto sauce, both of which complemented the beef well.
Main courses were equally good – my Dorset lamb loin was very tender and with a full and characterful taste. It was served with a minced vegetable accompaniment of cabbage, carrot and bacon – although the bacon didn’t add the extra kick I was hoping for. The second lamb element of the dish was a mini shepherd’s pie. With a base of wonderfully intense, melting braised lamb shoulder and a deep and thick topping of immensely creamy potato, this was a dish that worked superbly well; and although the individual items on the plate didn’t look particularly generously-portioned, the whole left one more than replete. Mr Marshall-Luck’s duck was served medium and the tender and rich breast slices shared the plate with crunchy spring rolls and mange tout, with a slightly Chinese-inspired sauce.
A pre-dessert followed the main courses – a crème brulée with very silky, creamy texture, with wineberries. This was a pleasingly different and unusual way to cleanse the palate – a far more delicious and appealing option than the traditional sorbet!
I had felt that the dessert choices were slightly limited in range, and there was nothing particularly intense or chocolate-orientated (the available options were mostly fruity – soufflés and cakes and suchlike) so I opted for the cheese board instead. And, gosh, I was pleased I did so, as I thereby encountered probably the best cheese board I have ever experienced outside of top London restaurants: a choice of 27 cheeses, 26 of which come from south west England, and only the Stilton from outside that area (very impressive). I chose a selection of five goats’ cheeses ranging in flavour from lemony and peppery, through intensely-flavoured and crumbly to grey and gooey. They were served with a traditional choice of accompaniments, from grapes and celery (de-stringed for convenience) through to walnuts and biscuits. So satisfying were these cheeses that I even managed to forgo a dessert wine from their superb list!
Although my husband rather regretted not joining me in the cheese board when he saw the gloriously extensive selection being wheeled over, he nevertheless pronounced his strawberries and cream very good: fresh and an appropriately light ending to a very satisfying meal.
Very good leaf tea and decent filter coffee of a good strength and rather moreish petit fours were taken back to our room, as we had already over-stayed by well over an hour the cut-off time by which children need to have absented themselves from the restaurant. (It should be noted that the staff were very good about this and we never once felt that there was any pressure upon us to leave – probably helped by the fact that Tristan, though then only all of five months, is already used to restaurants and behaves as perfectly as a young gentleman should.)
Breakfast is served in the dining room again, but spills out into the conservatory and even to the wrought-iron tables outside in the garden, surrounded by roses. Two minor slips were made by the staff, firstly by failing to bring hot water to warm up Tristan’s bottle when requested and secondly by omitting the mushrooms with my husband’s sausage, bacon and eggs – yet these were only tiny blemishes in an otherwise gratifying breakfast. A buffet offers a choice of cereals, smoked salmon, fruit salads, fresh juices (including a rather lovely pressed local apple juice), and meats and cheeses (including a spectacular air-dried ham), whilst the menu then presents hot choices, from the traditional English, through smoked fish and Eggs Benedict to sweet options such as pancakes, waffles and even peanut butter and jam French toast with crème fraiche. The food itself was very good – my scrambled eggs were light, fluffy and properly cooked; the bacon was wonderfully flavoursome (one was offered a choice of back or streaky), and the roasted tomatoes were also worthy of particular mention.
Breakfast was followed, by me, for a trip to the spa, while my husband and Tristan enjoyed the verdant gardens. The spa is housed in a glasshouse in the substantial vegetable garden, with its main feature an almost irresistibly inviting swimming pool – elegant and sunny and a deep blue. The spa is on boutique-y side (rather small yet intimate) and staff are friendly and professional, although the treatments rooms feel more clinical than cosy. I tried a hot stone massage which left me feeling deeply relaxed and unknotted.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that we failed to drag ourselves away at the appointed time and just happened to have to stay on for lunch – a leisurely affair taken outside surrounded by flowers. We commenced by admiring the tremendously impressive bar list (with literally hundreds of spirits from all over the world – from Japan through to the Czech Republic, with particularly extensive single malt and cognac lists) in the elegant drawing room , with its duck egg blue theme, large portraits and mirrors, comfortable and slightly faded armchairs and settees and open fireplace. Then we moved outside into the late summer sun for a substantial ham sandwich, and an excellent goats’ cheese salad along with delicious chips and a pint of local cider for me. It was the perfect conclusion to one of the most relaxing stays I’ve had the good fortune to experience for many a year.
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