As I write this it is New Year’s Eve and I’m sitting by the roaring log fire in one of the drawing rooms of the Lords of the Manor Hotel, awaiting the arrival of a much needed roast beef sandwich. Some years ago (I believe that I was revising for my A2s) I came with my family to this Cotswolds country house hotel in Upper Slaughter for an Easter break. Having enjoyed it and, remaining on their mailing list, in 2013 we decided to return for the New Year package from 30th December to New Year’s Day, including two set tasting menus in the Michelin-starred restaurant, a casino night, and archery. We loved it so much we decided to come back a year later, extending our stay this time until 2nd January 2015.
Between our first stay and last year’s a few changes had occurred, all for the better and, most importantly from my point of view, with the dining. On our first stay it was a good restaurant with an interesting and well-executed menu; the starters, though, were an issue. They were fine, but I believe all cold, and skewed towards patés and terrines (at times very cold, suggesting they were straight from the fridge) and seasoning was lacking. It was a shame, as it was clear the hotel had hopes of Michelin recognition, or at least standards close to the stars. I can only surmise that the kitchen had a lack of resources either in size or manpower. Upon our return in December 2013, the restaurant area had been vastly increased, and I would guess the kitchen along with it. I think it likely that the Michelin star the restaurant and head chef, Richard Picard-Edwards, now hold came following this investment.
I’m going to focus on the dining aspect of the package – this is a food column after all, and food is central to the country house hotel experience – but it is only fair that I give you a run down of everything.
A full English breakfast, and a choice of archery or a massage started New Year’s Eve
Check-in was on the afternoon of the 30th; afternoon tea was served, and it was a good one at that, with an excellent banana cake, macaroons, scones with the usual accompaniments, and a selection of sandwiches, the filling of the smoked salmon sandwich being generous and of top quality. In the evening dinner was a set five-course menu with drinks and canapés from 7.00pm, with coffee and petit fours to follow, along with blackjack and roulette tables. Thankfully the money I lost was only a couple £1000 toy notes.
New Year’s Eve started with a full English breakfast, followed by a choice of archery or a massage, with the rest of the day at your leisure; the short walk to Lower Slaughter, a beautiful little village, was a lovely way to pass some time. In the evening there was a black tie gala dinner with live music from the house band to play us into 2015. Departure is normally at 11am on the 1st but this time we added an extra night so as to spend New Year’s Day at our leisure and try the standard à la carte menu in the evening.
Awarding of a star should show that the kitchen is above average, and sub-par flavour, preparation and finesse should be absent
At this point I should be clear that, when it comes to starred restaurants, I’m always hypercritical. The awarding of the star should show that the kitchen is above average, and sub-par flavour, preparation and finesse should be absent. Where problems do exist they tend to be relatively minor and incidental – any major failure would mean something had gone terribly wrong. With the highest of standards expected, and the additional cost that such restaurants often tend to charge their diners – it has not been unheard of for a newly starred restaurant to up its prices overnight – one is justified in expecting near perfection.
To the matter at hand: the food. I’m going to focus on the most notable dishes from each of the three nights.
Leek and Potato Cream, Hazelnuts, Kipper Foam Roast Fillet of John Dory White Beans, Jerusalem Artichoke, Shaved Chestnut, Poultry Jus Rump of Beef, Cannelloni of Cheek, Creamed Celeriac, Pickled Onions, Baby Spinach, Red Wine Jus Lemon Meringue Pie Coconut Panna Cotta, Poached Pineapple, Lime Curd, Pink Pepper, Pineapple Sorbet
The Leek and Potato Cream came with the addition of a just-set egg yolk which wonderfully complemented the intense kipper foam and perfectly smooth potato cream with pieces of cold leek by helping to bind all the flavours together. The theme of unmentioned chicken continued to the John Dory, which was accompanied by it. Unfortunately, at first sight the high standards of the amuse-bouche were unmatched by the second course in terms of presentation; the fish looked dry and, despite it being skinned, some was left on mine suggesting a lack of attention to detail. Happily, and I do mean that, my fears were unfounded, as it was in fact cooked perfectly, and even the top of the fish did not register as dry in the mouth; clearly it was an issue for the eyes only. The flavours and textures of the dish were a perfect combination, with each aspect executed well and the shavings of chestnuts a nice touch.
The main course did not contain a surprise chicken element, probably the right call gastronomically, but a disappointment to be sure, as the idea of a hidden fowl theme running through the dinner appealed to my sense whimsy and caprice. Again it was a dish of classic combinations, all working well together with, perhaps, the exception of the Cannelloni of Cheek. Such additions to dishes are usually a favourite, and often the most flavour-packed parts. Unfortunately in this case I thought it a little dry and was surprised by the use of pasta as the cannelloni. I admit I shouldn’t have been surprised, but my preferred option of potato would have worked better, as pasta, as happened in this case, can become a bit dry as it sits on the plate. It was certainly the best-seasoned dish – I had felt that the fish would have been helped by a little more salt and there was no salt or pepper on the table. When it came to the beef, my piece was clearly from a different rump to my fellow diners’ as I found it particularly tender and perfectly cooked, while the others served to our table were all agreed to be a little tough. The use of pickled onion, instead of the now ubiquitous onion puree or burnt onion in one form or another, was a nice touch, adding a nice high note to the plate, as opposed to the usual middle to low note.
The dessert, involving panna cotta, was, I am pleased to say, really quite interesting. As with the menu as a whole, there was nothing new in the reading of it and I suppose there wasn’t really in the execution either, but, nonetheless, it far exceeded expectations as it was packed full of flavours which, even if not novel, sang together in a way that many such dishes fail to do. Indeed, so often do they fail that now when I read on a tasting menu that one of the desserts is a panna cotta (another ubiquitous dish these days) my heart sinks and I often let out an audible groan. Innovation seems to me to have stagnated in all but the highest echelons; where top chefs’ work would trickle down in the past, the very best restaurants have pulled so far ahead in terms of technique and resources, the wider market has been unable to keep up with the flow of new ideas. Leaving the elite to their own game and pushing in new directions from within the wider gastronomic world seems to be the way to break what feels like a decade of little progress. Here the panna cotta was not really a set cream (again often the case) but something closer to set coconut milk which gave it plenty of flavour along with the bitter chocolate caramel tuile. Also not quite what was advertised was the pineapple sorbet, being more of a frozen pineapple puree. The real star was the pink pepper corn syrup that danced across my tongue, lifting the other flavours and being my highlight of the night’s dinner.
The New Year’s Eve black tie gala dinnerSet Onion Cream, Roast Chicken Jelly, Thyme Foam, Parmesan Risotto Fritter Linguine of Lobster, Shellfish Foam Breast of Creedy Caver Duck, Ravioli of Leg, Roast Liver, Carrot Puree, Pickled Pear, Duck Jus Tunworth Brie, Apple and Raisin Chutney, Mache Leaves Vanilla Panna Cotta, Poached Pear, Verjus Granite “Louis XV” Hazelnut Daquoise, Caramel Ganache, Chocolate Mousse, Bitter Orange Sorbet
The set onion cream was a lovely way to start the meal thanks to its real, flavourful kick. The taste of soft onion was beautifully matched by a punch of thyme from the foam; it was one of the most strongly-flavoured foams I’ve ever had, and a joy given that most taste of almost nothing. I will admit that I could not taste the chicken jus, but the dainty risotto fritter was perfectly done.
For me the real star of the whole meal, and indeed of both days’ dinners, was, unsurprisingly, the duck. My New Year’s duck breast was of course perfectly pink, with the fat crispy and salty; the leg ravioli was superb, packed with flavour, and moist, all of which went perfectly with the rich and generously sized piece of foie gras. At first I was rather thrilled at what looked like a second piece of foie gras and the extreme generosity of the chef in providing it, though it turned out to be a slice of pear which was poached in spiced red wine and was not what I would have called pickled as the menu proclaimed. Nonetheless, just as the individual elements were all executed without fault, the whole dish held together perfectly.
For a second night in a row the main dessert, here the “Louis XV” Hazelnut Daquoise, was worth a mention, which is impressive on the part of the pastry chef as I’m not a great dessert fan, so often even in top restaurants they can be a let down. While not of the flavour complexity of the coconut panna cotta, it was faultless with the exception of the sorbet being again closer to a frozen puree, albeit slightly less so than the night before. The hazelnut daquoise was beautifully smooth and faultlessly accompanied by the bitter caramel ganache in which it was coated; the use of such a ganache was new to me but worked far better than a chocolate one would have.
The final night
Our final night saw us sampling the à la carte menu as dinner was not part of any package. The menu was not the longest, but then few such hotels offer long menus as few guests stay for more than 3 nights. There is a tasting menu at £85 per person or a three course à la carte at £72.50. I chose the following from the à la carte (after a very good mushroom panna cotta and ham amuse-bouche).
To start I went halves on: Braised Chicken Wings, Tarragon, Bacon Custard, Parsnip, Pickled Salsify, Poultry Jus And Cornish Crab, Potato, Cucumber, Caviar (Supplement of £5) Followed by the Pork: Roast Fillet, Crispy Belly, Braised Cheek and Boudin of Shoulder, Winter Greens, Carrot Puree, Pickled Pear Palate Cleanser – Lychee Panna Cotta Dessert: Cheese (I had sampled the other deserts over the previous two days)
I tend to stay away from chicken dishes in restaurants as they are often boring, with few inspiring treatments on offer. However, my starter was far from dull, with perfectly hand-rolled macaroni and succulent chicken, full of flavour enhanced by the mushrooms, parsnip, and tarragon. The bacon, too, went well though it can be overpowering if not handled carefully. The crab starter also was a lovely dish – clean, crisp and delicate, although the cucumber didn’t really add much and I’m not sure it was worth the additional £5, especially given the total standard cost of the three courses. For the same reason, the extra £6 for coffee and petit fours seemed excessive, and really should have been included.
The pork belly was by far one of the best pork dishes I’ve eaten. For some years now, thanks to the renewed push for nose to tail eating, it’s been fashionable (and I think dining-wise correct) to serve a variety of cuts of a meat as a dish’s centrepiece, and I have to say that each of the four cuts composing my main course were superb and faultless in all respects. The boudin in particular was noteworthy. The only fault I could find was that there was more pear accompaniment than necessary.
This last night was certainly the best in terms of service and execution. Every night was good, but, while on the last night each dish was explained to us when it arrived, on the previous two this had been hit and miss: some dishes were explained and others not. I don’t mind whether or not the dish is explained but, either way, consistency is the point; you either do explain or you don’t for every dish (and clearly they were meant to do it for every dish). That was the only real fault with the service. On the wine front too, I was surprised that the ten or so year old Spanish red we ordered was not decanted, when wine at other tables was. This is not because I think every red should be decanted but, with a wine of that age, it’s usually a sensible thing to do as invariably there is sediment.On drinking my penultimate glass of this wine, my suspicions were confirmed, while the same again was left in the bottle after I carefully managed to pour the wine without letting any of it further pollute my glass. I was rather pleased with achieving the delicate pour from the bottle, but rather more proud of the same act on the glass itself.