Adam Simmonds, Danesfield House Hotel and Spa, Henley Road, Marlow-on-Thames, Bucks
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 21 April 2012
Late-night visitors to Marlow have often been shocked by the chilling apparition of the Grey Lady of Danesfield Park, a solemn-faced ghost holding a lantern, who glides around where the chapel once stood, before disappearing. We had a broadly similar experience on driving into the hotel grounds – seeing the chilling apparition of Danesfield House, a great white whale of a late-Victorian Gothic folly looming in front of you like Moby Dick. It's an extraordinary sight, with its tall chimneys, its clock tower and elaborately terraced gardens, and it carries an air of melancholy – the result, perhaps, of too many owners, speculators and changes of use. It was built in 1899 by the heir to the Sunlight soap fortune, who sold it the moment it was finished. It housed evacuees in the war and was requisitioned by the RAF. It was once home to the Hellfire Club of Medmenham, a bunch of crazed desperadoes from the nearby village. Since 1991 it's been a hotel. And in the past four years, it's picked up a reputation as home to one of the country's finest chefs, Adam Simmonds.
He has an impressive pedigree. Having survived an apprenticeship-of-fire under Marco Pierre White at Les Saveurs, Simmonds worked for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir for three years, and picked up a Michelin star at Ynyshir Hall in Wales. On his watch, Danesfield now has its own Michelin star, and is listed as the 12th best UK restaurant in the 2012 Good Food Guide.
The dining-room is as ghostly as the spooky revenant in the park. The walls are limed wood panelling, originally designed by Anouska Hempel, the carpet a hideous patterned beige, the mirrors are pure Ikea, the lampshades mild yellow, the chairs acid-bathed thrones with monogrammed antimacassars. Wherever you look it's white, flesh, peach, blond... You're amazed that "A Whiter Shade of Pale" isn't issuing (murmurously) from discreet speakers.
The food mostly matches the monochrome décor, but from start to finish is full of vivid flavours. An amuse-bouche of rum jelly with granita whacks your tongue with cold mint and vanishes. Another, of goat's cheese with red pepper and black olive, is a tiny gazpacho with a hint of Milk of Magnesia. Crab salad is a girlishly pretty mosaic of tiny crab molecules, dots of avocado purée and transparent squares of kohlrabi – subtle and pungent but gone too soon. Angie's roasted chicken oysters, lightly battered like a Platonic ideal of chicken nuggets, came with three kinds of potato – Jersey royals, a button of mash and wraith-like crisps.
Her main-course brill, cooked sous-vide in a water bath, was the whitest fish I've ever seen and came arrayed with oysters and fabulously soft batons of cucumber, under a section of what looked, at first, like green floor-covering but turned out to be a nasturtium meringue. The salty-and-sweet combination was stunning. "I've never had such a thing in my life before," said Angie. "So fresh and healthy and full of surprises."
As though to buck the prevailing colourlessness, my pork dish was almost aggressively dark and butch. Flagged as 'Confit jowl, pork oysters, black pudding, salt baked Jerusalem artichokes, hops' (not a combination you find every day), it was an invasion of flavours from the world's dark underbelly. 'Confit jowl' was basically pork cheeks, but from lower down the porcine fizzog. They were surprisingly pale and fibrous, compared with the blacker-than-Hades pork oysters that sat, like the Lord of the Flies, upon a Satanic but darkly satisfying combination of black pudding purée, apple purée and pork gravy. I couldn't identify the hops in this wrestling-match of tastes and textures, but the artichokes held their own and tiny balls of crackling added grit.
We finished with a gorgeous (though pale) caramel pudding involving banana panna cotta, a cigar shape of caramel mousse and a spindrift of popcorn granita – a bit of a fiddle, but charming – and a cheese board accompanied by apple and celery sorbet. The homemade biscuits were sublime (we agreed with another couple that Adam Simmonds's bread and biscuits are among his most memorable creations) as were the chocolate petits fours on a bed of choc flakes.
Perhaps you think I'm exaggerating the pale ghostliness of the Danesfield dining experience. I'm not. It's a vestal shrine to minimalism and frictionless efficiency. Our German waitress, Karolina, could explain any of the meal's components, and recite the cheeses like a coloratura soprano, but never strayed into friendliness. The maître d' warned in advance that sous-vide cooking can leave some dishes looking a bit bland and unfinished, but wouldn't affect the taste. That's Danesfield all right. The food's delicious – but you can't help feeling you've strayed into some absentee monarch's very pale kingdom.
Adam Simmonds, Danesfield House Hotel and Spa, Henley Road, Marlow-on-Thames, Bucks (01628 891010)
About £200 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Country stars
The Michelin-starred restaurant is located among Surrey parkland and the beautiful Pennyhill Park and Spa. Starters include loin of Loire Valley rabbit.
London Road, Bagshot, Surrey (01276 471 774)
With views of the lakes, Holbeck Ghyll, awarded a Michelin star for 12 consecutive years, offers visual and gastronomic delights.
Holbeck Lane, Windermere, Cumbria (01539 432 375)
Boath House restaurant
Try the pheasant, pistachio and quince mix at this Michelin-starred restaurant, located within a luxury Regency-house hotel.
Auldearn, Nairn, Scotland (01667 454896)
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