Howard’s House Hotel
Reviewed by Em Marshall-Luck
Howard’s House Hotel is found in the idyllic Wiltshire village of Teffont Evias, set amidst pure tranquillity. To reach it, one steps back delightfully into the past, as one twists down tiny winding lanes past ancient houses built of old grey stone with mullioned windows and well-established cottage gardens.
After squeezing through the narrow stone gates into the car park, one receives a friendly welcome in the reception. We were taken through at once into the lounge, the main feature of which is a huge grey-stone Tudor fireplace, with which the modern, sometimes slightly abstract, paintings and photographs of the room look at odds. Other charming old features include a lions head set into the wall, an antique pair of bellows on a stand and the stone mullioned windows; again, the slightly modern (although perfectly comfortable) furniture slightly jars. Menus were brought, along with an offer of drinks, and some amuse bouches of cheesy puff pastry and olives.
The menu consisted of around six starters and main courses, as well as a tasting menu. I didn’t notice any vegetarian items, although I could have overlooked these. The wine list was reasonably extensive and very good indeed – full of classic French Bordeaux, along with South African and New World wines. We went for the Charles Schleret 2007, a Gewürztraminer from Alsace (I was very impressed that the list sported not one but two Gewürztraminers). This was a gorgeous wine of a deep golden honey colour with a nose also of honey, plump sultanas and nectar. On the palate it was luscious and fairly sweet – rich, golden and oozing sunshine, with lots of raisins and sultanas, and touches of figs and dates. My only criticism is that it arrived not quite chilled enough, despite residing in an ice bucket.
The dining room faces the same dichotomy of character as the lounge. The predominant feature of the room is a beautiful stone mullioned window, in which reside numerous house plants and a rather magnificent cast iron candle-stick sporting five pillar candles. This is all gloriously and heart-warmingly old-fashioned. Yet the rest of the room attempts at modernism with very contemporary landscape paintings amongst other, slightly odd, photographs and paintings. Everything is painted a brilliant white – where it should be oak panelling and dark, time-aged colours, and we have nondescript track lighting, instead of the old chandeliers or antique lamps that the room cries out for. Tables, too, aim at a modern look, with faux leather chairs, modern vases holding a single rose each and contemporary-looking candle-stick holders, holding the single candle burning on each table. A large old mirror and impressive flower display are redeeming features. But perhaps the worst feature was the music, in which the range of popular music played included rap which was not only deeply off-putting and preventative of a relaxing atmosphere, but also totally out of context with the surroundings. Moreover, the clientele are, surely, not the type to appreciate this type of music: our only other dining companions were precisely the sort of people we would have envisaged in this extremely quiet, peaceful and secluded country house hotel setting – an elderly couple, probably not very well-travelled (certainly unadventurous in their gastronomic tastes, by their meal choices) and certainly old-fashioned in terms of appearance and topics of conversation. Not your typical rap-listener!
If the music and surroundings and resultant ambience disconcerted, the food, however, impressed. Appetisers were swiftly brought – battered king prawns with guacamole and lime. The prawns were excellent – just the right degree of meatiness and resistance in the texture, whilst the batter coating was crisp and thin: in no sense overpowering or overly prominent. The guacamole was superbly judged so as to complement the prawn, giving a different taste and texture that lifted the whole. I, meanwhile, being a non shell-fish person, was brought some smoked salmon – the thick, chunky slices of this were delicious, with a strong smoky flavour.
My starter of smoked Barbary duck was also excellent – the prune puree added a sweet element that softened the saltiness of the duck well – for the smoked flavour was deeply-(and pleasingly) pronounced. The accompanying elements of fresh herbs, onions and mushrooms also worked well, making a dish of harmony and gratification. Mr Marshall-Luck’s starter was a pork and black-pudding terrine. The pork was immediately pronounced delicious – not overly salty or fatty, but with enough of both of these elements to lend a touch of decadence. The black pudding was superbly rich, and the proportions between the two judged to perfection.
My main course of sea bass with samphire, a saffron butter and parsnip puree worked exceedingly well. The fish was quite a chunky fillet, but good, with a delicate but discernible favour. The samphire was possibly not the plumpest, freshest or saltiest that I have tasted, but it nevertheless worked well with the delicacy of the sea bass, and the puree was exquisite – its sweetness again singing in harmony with the other elements of the dish.
The partridge which my husband had ordered was served with game chips, red cabbage and game sauce. Partridge being quite a dry meat, the moistness of the red cabbage was essential to provide a balance, and the flavour of the meat itself was excellent – well focused and piquant. The sauce was very good indeed – again, a well-bodied flavour which was finely judged to balance the gaminess of the partridge; and the game chips were wonderfully salty and crisp.
As usual, I succumbed to the lure of the cheese selection (a very good selection indeed). I went for two goats’ cheeses, both of which were fully characterful and flavoursome. They were served with a selection of biscuits and sweet quince jelly which worked well as an accompaniment – although some celery or grapes would not have gone amiss.
My husband dived into the almond and cherry cake – which he deemed perhaps a little on the dry side. The initial visual impression was one of sponge cake, which made the denseness at first slightly incongruous (although it is, of course, perfectly appropriate), yet the flavour was delicate, whilst being sufficiently penetrating to register (not at all ‘pastel’) and the slight sourness of the Greek yoghurt added an interesting and imaginative dimension. Baby Tristan and I, meanwhile, shared a chocolate tart with cardamom ice cream and Cointreau sauce. Both accompaniments went very well indeed – especially the cardamom ice cream which was intensely and deliciously flavoured. The Muscat de Beaumes in which I also indulged was fine, if nothing particularly spectacular.
We finished the meal with tea and coffee and petit-fours. The tea was fine, although the coffee was slightly on the weak side for Mr Marshall-Luck, and he was a little surprised by the way in which the coffee grounds had escaped the filter of the cafetiere, finding their way, like sedimentary deposits, onto the side of the coffee-cup. The rather delicious petit-fours were polished off so immediately by Tristan that his poor parents didn’t get a look-in!
There is no doubt that the food at Howard’s House Hotel is excellent; with fresh, simple ingredients allowed to shine through, and waiting to be accompanied by excellent wines. The village and the building itself cry out as beacons of restorative refuge to those wearied and exasperated by the busy and fast modern world; it is just a shame that the decor and the music of the hotel give way to those unwanted modern influences, instead of holding true to the beauty and nobility of the past.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic