It would be easy to recast the arrival of Jean-Christophe Novelli at Auberge du Lac as a cautionary tale. A gifted chef, four times awarded a Michelin star, he found fame in the mid-Nineties as chef-patron of Clerkenwell's Maison Novelli, before accelerating his way through a chain of ever-more-optimistic acquisitions, from Notting Hill to Normandy. Then he crashed and burned. Marco Pierre White bailed him out, enabling him to return to his original kitchen at Maison Novelli. Now his services have been acquired by the Japanese leisure group that operates Brocket Hall, a stately home-cum-golf course in Hertfordshire.
An over-ambitious French chef forced to do penance by cooking at a golf club in Footballers' Wives country? Or a brilliant artist, freeing himself from financial pressures to pursue his dream of creating a destination restaurant? To hear Novelli tell it, he is passionately committed to the new project, and grateful to have been given a second chance. And Brocket Hall is certainly an appropriate setting for a shot at redemption. Its last owner, Lord Brocket, served a prison sentence for a £4.5m insurance scam involving his Ferrari collection, rumoured to be buried somewhere in the grounds. Cue the arrival of that Japanese leisure company, the golf course and the profile-raising celebrity chef.
It's an attractive spot, in so far as golf courses can be attractive to the non-golfer. The Auberge is an 18th-century hunting lodge, nestling in a tree-fringed hollow beside a fairy-tale lake, with handsome Brocket Hall dominating the scene. From the remote-controlled security gate to the orchestrated chorus of greetings, the whole place purrs with expensive exclusivity.
The dining room is more atmospheric than you might expect a former golf clubhouse to be, but only just. One corner is carved from the old cellar of the building, but most of the tables are in a modern extension. The effect is not so much ancient and modern as ancient and nouveau – with its swirly carpet, swaggering display of lilies and curly ironwork, there's more than a touch of Eighties showiness about the décor.
"It's just on the cusp of being naff," decided my guest. "There isn't one thing you want to rest your eye on." Until M. Novelli makes one of his regular forays from the kitchen, that is, at which point the view improves considerably. The lucky occupants of window tables also have a splendid vista of Brocket Hall, and can monitor the lake in case the fin of a Testarossa breaks the waters, like Nessie.
Towards the end of his time in Clerkenwell, Novelli talked about the growing Spanish influence on his cooking, but his menu for Auberge is gloriously, unapologetically French. Novelli's food, despite its high-finish flourishes, has always had its feet on the ground, and his fans will be pleased to see earthy dishes like braised pig's trotter stuffed "selon mon humeur" and braised oxtail with liquorice and cauliflower mash appearing alongside the sole meunière. There's a set lunch menu, too – remarkable value at £28 for three courses (including a half bottle of wine per person).
The dishes we sampled from the à la carte menu were as manicured and slaved over as the green on the 18th hole. A tian of crabmeat, Norwegian prawns and avocado showed expert handling of the ingredients, zingy with flavour despite being served at a Scandinavian temperature. Chubby grilled scallops had more than enough character to hold their own against nuggets of black pudding, a substance that tends to overpower all it touches, like Alison Steadman in a costume drama.
Further evidence that Novelli has found first-class suppliers came in the form of roast lamb cutlets of a Platonic sweetness and pinkness. Each wore a crown of mild Stilton soufflé, an unorthodox but entirely successful combination. My guest's dish also featured an unlikely partnership, but less triumphantly so; roast salmon and lightly cooked foie gras have a similar, slightly gelatinous texture, and the combination didn't benefit either component.
Desserts – including carpaccio-thin slices of pineapple spiced with ginger and chilli – sported Novelli's trademark spiral of spun sugar, a flashy touch that seemed at odds with the pastoral surroundings, just as wearing diamonds in the country is considered a faux pas. But caramel spirals are the kind of thing, along with ubiquitous dots of caviar, and the volley of bon appetits that launched each course, that Michelin inspectors, rather than regular punters, tend to appreciate.
So will Novelli achieve his ambitions for Auberge du Lac? Proximity to several motorways makes it easily accessible from north London, as well as Essex and Hertfordshire. But while Novelli's cooking is certainly vaut le voyage, the British, unlike the French, don't tend to drive 20 miles for a meal unless they can get a nice country walk or a bit of antique shopping into the bargain. Which means Auberge du Lac will remain a treat for locals rather than a destination restaurant. And when it comes to a chef of Novelli's talents, that's rather like burying a Ferrari under a golf course. E
Auberge du Lac, Brocket Hall, Welwyn, Hertfordshire (01707 368 888)
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