Ellenborough Park, Cheltenham
Ellenborough Park was a surprise – albeit one of the nicest possible: a great rambling old pile in Cheltenham; the original Tudor house (which dates from the early fifteenth century) presenting a glorious step back in time, but with less attractive modern accretions. The first impressions – once we found the car park and battled the biting wind to walk up to the reception – were good. A very professional but not unfriendly greeting met us from the main desk, and we were then taken through to a fabulous wooden-panelled room with glorious old stone work, a blazing log fire and spectacular minstrel’s gallery. We settled in a large and comfortable but nevertheless elegant sofa by the warmth of the fire and were brought menus, drinks lists and wine lists. A glass of refreshing prosecco and proper, freshly squeezed orange juice were brought, along with rather exquisite amuse bouches – a creamy and flavoursome Caesar chicken on a rye base; and a delicately flavoured and rather decadently creamy mousse in a crunchy case. We were pleased and impressed that they brought enough for three – the first time ever, actually, that amuse bouche have been provided for our young toddler, Tristan, as well. He enjoyed them as much as we did. A superb start to the meal.
We moved through then to the restaurant and were seated in deep and comfortable chairs at a large circular table in another truly beautiful, old, oak-panelled room. I was particularly struck by the wooden carvings in the frieze above the panellings and by the ornately carved fireplace, which stretches right up to the ceiling with carved dragons, figures, shields of arms and the like. Decoration in this room is, curiously, slightly Moroccan in feel – with clustered mirror placements with Moorish surrounds, and Moroccan-style wall lanterns and central lampshades. A Moroccan screen by the doorway which mirrors a folding early English archway door completes the picture. It was perhaps all the more surprising that these exotic elements actually worked extremely well in this very English country-house setting; with the glow of the lighting lending a pleasing warmth to the wooden panelling.
Tristan was rather lost in the huge chair, indicating that this fine dining restaurant was not perhaps terribly used to hosting children – but no-one batted an eyelid at his presence and all the staff were extremely friendly to him, bringing him a toy horse; or greeting him when he wandered off to explore the other rooms, even at one point in time taking him off to show him something, hand in hand!
Water was offered and, shortly afterwards, bread brought – a range of beautifully fresh, warm rolls, including white, brown and small seeded loaves. A large number of these were brought, again with Tristan in mind, as well as three portions of the appetiser. This was a mushroom soup that headed towards a velouté in texture and was just a touch too much on the sweet side for me, yet which worked extremely well with the flakes of proper sea salt on the table.
I started with the smoked duck with heritage beetroot. The smoked duck itself was excellent – meaty and flavoursome; the smokiness pronounced enough to make itself felt but not overpowering. The selection of types of beetroot were interesting; different enough to provide a contrast of textures and tastes, and all of which complemented the duck well. The American pinot noir (“La Crema”, Monterey) I was served to go with it was quite extraordinary. It had a depth of flavour, maturity and smokiness that I wouldn’t usually associate with pinot noir. It was extremely smooth and creamy and had the most stunning taste of extrmaorindarily smooth and gentle pure woodiness. I have never before tasted a wine so little about grapes or fruit and so much about beautifully warm, red, glowing wood – an old, rich deep oak. Absolutely beautiful.
My husband’s smoked salmon was also very tasty, had a very smooth texture, and went well with its garnish; the simple serving allowing the excellence and quality of the fish itself to be fully appreciated. It was accompanied by a French rosé that was fragrant – but with a savoury (almost salty) fragrance – and a very pale colour. A dry wine, it was light and extremely redolent of sharp, refreshing fruits, such as redcurrants and cranberries. It worked very well with the fish, cutting through the salmon’s creamy oiliness well.
With the main courses a Shiraz Cabernet from a small, quirky Australian producer was served. It was a dark, earthy wine, deep purple in colour and quite thick, with a nose of black bramble fruits, not much wood, but a strong hint of tar and ash and a taste that also strongly headed towards the dark, earthy side of things: very thick, almost black in taste and full of tar, blackberries and blackcurrants. A hint of liquorice lightened the blackness but there was not much sweetness there; making for a heavy and serious wine, which worked well with the 28-day aged Herefordshire beef fillet. This was served in the most sensibly-sized portions – only three chunky slices each – but this was all that one needed of this filling dish. The meat was flavoursome, rich and tender with an almost gamey flavour as a result of the 28-day aging. It came with a variety of vegetables, all well-presented, and a red wine sauce that added a welcome hint of sweetness to the meat. A favourite element of mine here was the mushroom puree, which was rich and sweet yet with a strong earthy flavour which complemented the meat beautifully.
For dessert we shared a tiramisu which was rather deconstructed – coffee ice cream with a rather wonderful concoction of layers of biscuits (which had the slightly savoury qualities of chocolate bourbons) with a very creamy – if not particularly alcoholic – filling.
I also went for the cheese trolley and three different goats’ cheeses, including a small pot of intensely flavoured curd. The cheese plate was nicely presented, with a board of celery and other accompaniments. A golden-coloured, golden-flavoured dessert wine went beautifully with this – rich, luscious and sweet without being at all cloying, and with pleasant citrus and floral tones.
The service had been faultless – the maitre d’ was very polished but also very friendly, engaging dinners in conversation when it became apparent that they had a question or wished to talk; and maintaining an appropriate distance when it was clear they wished to eat and talk in private. His customary attitude standing at the head of the room to keep an eye on diners’ progress was slightly hampered by Tristan running up to him for cuddles from time to time, but he seemed to welcome rather than resent this.
On the whole, it was one of the finest dining experiences I’ve had recently – superb food; extraordinary wines; beautiful surroundings and excellent service. The price would make this a special-occasion meal, but is definitely recommended.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic