… 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.