EpiQR – Sienna, Dorchester


High West Street, Dorchester


This is an establishment that is really serious about its food – the finest ingredients, locally sourced wherever possible and absolutely fresh; cooked in a way that shows them off at their very best – non-fussy, uncomplicated, but nevertheless very stylish, and passionately cooked. One has the feeling that all profits from the – very reasonably priced – meals are ploughed back into sourcing the best ingredients, as the appearance of the restaurant somewhat belies the quality of food proffered.

In fact, I’ve passed by the outside of Sienna on a large number of occasions, walking up the hill of Dorchester’s High (West) Street, with its busy traffic, heading for the Keep Military Museum (an excellent place to work up a healthy appetite – along with Dorchester’s other numerous museums, including the fascinating and seemingly Tardis-like County Museum). Every time I’ve stopped; intrigued by the menu but slightly put off by the very plain exterior that is more redolent of a cafe than a fine dining establishment – and one, at that, whose frosted glass does not easily allow one to peer inside.

This just goes to confirm the old saying that one can’t judge a book by its cover, as inside, one will find some of the finest food in Dorset – a very foodie county. The interior also rather suffers from lack of attention. The intimate space sports cafe-like tables; velvety orange benches comprise most of the seating, with just one other table on its own. The toffee-coloured carpet, beige chairs, yellow walls and modern art-y type of paintings complement the general colour scheme of yellow, beige and orange, as does the minimalist wooden bar – yet the wall furniture could complement the decor to a better degree (mid-wood / bronze for the light switches and lights?). The painting is a little uneven on the walls and ceiling, with unclean lines, and is scuffed in places, too, contributing to that slightly run-down look, as does the old heater above the door, and the fact that the paint is flaking away from the frame. Plates lining the walls in the hallway leading to the basic lavatories, however, speak of rosette awards and promise excellent fare.

The greeting is friendly, and service prompt but not at all rushing – one is allowed as much as time as wishes without feeling at all harried (this is good, given the propensity of my husband and mine to spend three or four hours in a restaurant whilst believing that only an hour or two have gone by).  Reasonably inoffensive Pop Jazz plays at a fairly discreet volume – and is duly ignorable (classical music would, of course, be preferable), and there is a no mobile policy, which one must applaud. My final tiny point of criticism, before turning to laud the food, is that the tables are a little close together – which can be irritating if one has people churning out banal inanities on the next table.

We were duly presented with the menu and wine list. Both impressed – the latter in particular, especially given the enticing descriptions of the wines on offer – far fuller and more informative and appealing than one usually finds. Top marks for this. I chose a Kayene Vineyard 2010 Gewürztraminer from the Tamar Valley in Tasmania, not having tried a Tasmanian Gewürztraminer before, and being an aficionado of that particular grape variety. The wine was a pale straw colour, with a nose that combined a heavy hit of lychee with floral overtones. The taste was full of spice and bite, yet with delicate floral and mineral shades. With a dry finish, it presented a perfect balance between body and light freshness, and suited our purposes very well indeed.

The amuse bouches at once set the tone for the rest of the meal – breaded lamb sticks presented slightly fatty but intensely flavoursome lamb in crunchy breadcrumbs, while goats cheese truffles were very dark and smoky in flavour, rich and immensely creamy and silky. These two exquisite morsels were presented alongside a bowl of Marcona almonds, which were immediately whisked away from where my husband could reach them to reside safely on the other side of my menu (I let him have the freshly-baked and distinctive bread instead), and provided much crunching happiness for the next ten minutes or so while we continued to peruse the menus. The lunch menu offers a choice of three starters and mains, and the dinner menu five of each, and there is also a £60 seven course tasting menu (with suggested wines for each course, which can be added on to the equation for a reasonable extra £27 per person). Starters on offer include duck liver parfait, monkfish saltimbocca and fresh Blackacre Farm egg pappardelle with roasted onions, thyme and Fontina cheese; whilst the main courses offer slow-cooked local pork belly, Goosnargh duck, and also imaginative vegetarian options.

My husband opted to start with the new season potato soup with rocket pesto. It is, I imagine, quite difficult to make potato soup taste interesting and, indeed, anything other than bland but Sienna managed extremely well – it certainly tasted very potato-y (in a good and appealing way); the rocket pesto added extra zest, and the soup was garnish with slices of extremely flavoursome potato. I chose chargrilled rump of Jurassic Coast rose veal with white bean casserole, pickled carrots and Arbequina olive oil. The meat was nicely done – slightly pink in the middle, and no sense of actual charcoal anywhere. The accompanying casserole was excellent, with good, tangy, mustardy gravy, and crunchy ribbons of carrot flavoured with tarragon.

For the main course Mr Marshall-Luck went for roast fillet of line-caught West country cod with creamed Savoy cabbage and bacon, salsify and red wine reduction. The fish was delicately flavoured, well-filleted (he found no bones anywhere), and, with a crunchy topping, was served with a delicious sweet parsnip puree, on a tangy cabbage and salty, savoury bacon bed which worked well with the delicate flesh. A good mixture of flavours none of which overpowered the others. I, meanwhile, had been unable to resist the temptation of saddle of wild venison with caramelised quince, chestnuts, potato puree and game jus. This was probably the best venison I have ever tasted – superbly  done, with a dark, gamey, rich taste to the meat, which was beautifully tender and perfectly cooked – neither too pink nor over-done. The potato was rich and creamy, the quince and chestnuts perfectly complement the meat, and I was spared having to steal my husband’s cabbage and bacon by having my own; all in a rich and flavoursome gravy.

While nothing could top my supremely delectable venison, dessert was (unusually) the high point of the meal for my husband. His Yorkshire forced rhubarb frangine tart with orange custard and rhubarb sorbet sported the best pastry he had ever encountered in a restaurant – superbly light and just the right texture, whilst the rhubarb was deemed flavoursome yet delicate – pleasantly tangy without being overbearing. The pieces of rhubarb adorning the edges of the plate were also spot-on – cooked just enough to be firm without being tough or stringy in the slightest. I reverted (atypically) to a female stereotype in giving in to the “Selvatica” chocolate tasting plate: a good (not too sweet) white chocolate panncotta, dark chocolate cookies (fresh and quite chewy), milk chocolate ice-cream (this worked well with a light wafer base, but was just slightly on the bland side for my taste, preferring a much richer, more characterful flavour), and bitter chocolate sponge pudding. The latter was pleasingly bitter whilst remaining surprisingly light. The texture was quite dry (no melting middles here), but not unpleasantly so (although I needed my usual pot of double cream to lend moisture and provide balance to the chocolately essence). It was, however, served just slightly on the cool side.

All in all, it was quite a superb meal – the standards of cooking, freshness of ingredients and presentation remained extremely high throughout, and Sienna well deserves the accolades (which include a Michelin star) it has collected thus far. Talking to chef Russell Brown afterwards, it was evident that the focus on provenance is something that Sienna takes seriously – it is not just a token gesture to appeal to a discerning clientele, but pervades the very ethos and raison d’être of this restaurant. My advice to the passing pedestrian is not to hesitate over a less than inviting exterior but to dive straight in and enjoy the best cooking this historic little town offers (and possibly the best venison anywhere!).

EM MARSHALL-LUCK is the QR’s restaurant critic


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