The King John Inn, Tollard Royal
The Brasserie, Lucknam Park Hotel, Chippenham
The King John Inn is found down twisting, winding, Wiltshire lanes, in the village of Tollard Royal, not far from the Dorset border. The views afforded by the journey are alone worth the trip – on the evening I visited the sun was setting over the Dorset Ridgeway in the distance, bathing the fiercely undulating hills and valleys in a golden light and silhouetting local hillforts.
First impressions of the pub were good; a small group drinking a chilled bottle of white in a sunny, clean, smart little forecourt; the handsome Victorian building (1859) red-brick and ivy-clad. The spacious interior is a combination of the pleasingly rustic and the elegant – slightly quirky, but interestingly so, with modern black and white photographic prints of pastoral pursuits, good solid wooden furniture, quarry tiles, a smart (and notably well-stocked) bar and open fire. The quirkiness was exaggerated by the use of tea towels for napkins.
Our welcome was warm and although we were well looked-after, service was never intrusive or over-bearing; food was served a little too quickly if anything but one suspects that this was in over-eagerness to please, and that visitors who are not known to be journalists would usually be given longer to talk or mull over their wines before courses.
I was impressed by the wine list, and particularly by the excellent selection of house wines. I was also pleased to see English wines features, as well as some interesting ciders; and noted that organic and biodynamic wines are a speciality of the establishment. Taken as a whole, the list offered a superb range of wines to suit all budgets and tastes – the only disappointment was that only three dessert wines were listed. The King John Inn perhaps expects an educated, knowledgeable and discerning clientele, as there were no descriptions of the wines, or even breakdown according to wine types – this means, of course, that those who are not au fait with wines and who are perhaps too shy to ask for a recommendation could well be left floundering. The fact that one suddenly lost the country of origin two thirds of the way down the reds probably wouldn’t help, either!
Although there were a number of old favourites of mine on the list, we nevertheless went for the recommendation: a 2010 Moulin de Gassac Classic from the Languedoc region. With a plummy nose, deep purple colour and tasting of dark berry fruits (blackcurrants, cherry, plums and blackberries) but also offering hints of tar and ash, this was a good recommendation – a full-bodied, hearty red that well complemented the rich flavours of the food.
The menu offers dishes linked to particular villages or counties or regions (I found this a little too elastic – to cite so precise a location as a particular village for the steak, yet the far broader county for the soufflé and lamb didn’t quite convince me) – nevertheless, for those for whom provenance (down to the county at least!) is important, the King John Inn lays anxious minds at rest.
The food itself is immensely flavoursome, well-presented, and supplied in healthy but never excessive portions. My husband’s cured mutton came with an onion and mint raita, the clean, sharp flavours of which cut through the salty, fatty (not in a bad way!) mutton. My pigeon and bacon was wonderfully savoury – the delicate yet gamey pigeon enhanced by the smoky bacon and crunchy croutons.
The mains were not quite as spectacular as the starters – the lamb was just slightly bland in flavour, which is where the accompanying bacon came in, to impart taste. The tartiflette appeared to lack two of its main ingredients and was closer to lyonnaise – but the incorrect appellation is a minor quibble, as it was really rather delicious. My twice-baked Westcombe cheddar soufflé was a little on the dense and mild sides, although the salad was very good.
We tried, for desserts, the hot chocolate (yes, the drink; not an oddly-named pudding), which was rather too sweet for our liking, and which came with so-called “truffles” that were really perfectly adequate homemade chocolates. Far higher marks, however, for the sticky toffee pudding and especially for its exquisite butterscotch sauce (although the ice cream tasted a little on the manufactured side). The meal concluded (as every fine meal should do) with a dessert wine – a glass of Montbazziliac (liquid sunshine) – a fine way to conclude a thoroughly enjoyable, convivial meal – fine food, excellent wines, and more than agreeable atmosphere and surroundings. All that was missing was our Irish Wolfhound and Border Collie – but now we know they are welcome too we’ll be returning with them in tow.
For an entirely different type of eating experience – modern, light and yet still sophisticated, one could not do much better than to visit Lucknam Park Hotel, forty-five miles almost due north of Tollard Royal. A grand and imposing, but unstuffy, Palladian country house hotel dating from 1720 (and retained as a family home until only twenty-five years ago), it is situated six miles north-east of Bath, and thus offers the perfect lunch-break before or after hours whiled away exploring the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey, and enjoying the elegance and other attractions of the city. Set in five hundred acres of parkland and gardens and reached down a mile-long avenue of a drive, the hotel offers all the luxuries one could desire and would expect – equestrian activities, fine dining, formal and informal gardens, the romance of an eighteenth century Dovecote, a spa with an extensive list of treatments, and a relatively new brasserie: I investigated the latter. This is housed in a modern yet tasteful building built in the same honey-coloured stone as the house, with clean lines and large windows allowing the sunlight to fill the spaces; this is connected to the older house by a shady Japanese arboured walkway with rectangular, goldfish-filled pools either side. The brasserie is open for all meals, from breakfast through to full evening meals, although the atmosphere and surroundings seemed perfect for a light lunch – one feels it might be a little too informal for dinner. Meals are offered outside on the terrace when the weather permits, whilst in the colder months an open fire (which was nevertheless burning on the spring day I visited) creates a cosy ambience. The Brasserie is divided into open-plan lounge, bar and restaurant sections: I sat in the restaurant – a spacious, light and smart area in beiges and browns, with vast French windows that overlook, and open out onto, the gardens. The furniture was a little on the functional side and not especially comfortable – another reason, perhaps, to avoid the Brasserie for an evening meal. Staff were attentive and friendly, and a bottle of Gewürztraminer (slightly drier than usual, although with the typical strong mineral elements that one anticipates from a Gewürztraminer) was duly ordered from a good wine list while I enjoyed the superb sourdough bread.
On arrival, one is offered a couple of menus – a set menu and a la carte, the latter with a “healthy corner”, and I was pleased to note that the staff appear relaxed about choosing different courses from the different menus. Aware that the menus had been devised by Michelin-starred chef Hywel Jones, that the ingredients are locally sourced from carefully-chosen suppliers, and that the Brasserie had been awarded an AA rosette, my expectations were high – and, on the whole, were met. I started with the heritage tomato and curd cheese salad from the “healthy” menu, which was pleasantly flavoursome and well-presented; and the curd cheese was so creamy and luxurious that one didn’t feel it was at all “healthy” – the tomatoes of their different hues, all locally grown, also intrigued. This salad was followed by braised lamb with summer vegetables, served in its own little Le Creuset-esque cast iron casserole dish – the meat was meltingly tender, and the sauce was deep and rich. The dessert, a cherry cheesecake, with too sweet a filling and too cardboard-like a base, was the only disappointing part of the meal. I departed, replete, but aware that I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of the delights that Lucknam Park Hotel offers – next time there is the Michelin starred Park Restaurant in the main hotel to try out…
EM MARSHALL-LUCK is the Quarterly Review’s restaurant critic
The King John Inn, Tollard Royal, Wiltshire, SP5 5PS. 01725 516 207 email@example.com
Lucknam Park Hotel, Chippenham, Wiltshire, SN14 8AZ. 01225 742777 http://www.lucknampark.co.uk/