It's so long since I dined in a country-house hotel, I'd almost forgotten their qualities: the dust of centuries rising from fat velvet cushions, the Miss Havisham curtains, the leather-bound menus, the raised eyebrows when you ask for a second apéritif before dinner... Bath Priory features some of these delights, but transcends them in considerable style. It's a small, Gothic mansion dating from 1835, built with the town's honey-coloured stone, on land once owned by the Priory of Bath Abbey: there's a cloister-like tranquillity about it still. The rooms are blissfully comfortable, and overlook a croquet lawn and swimming-pool. The restaurant's decor seems unchanged in half a century – high-backed leather chairs, worn staff-room carpet, oil paintings of imperial ladies disembarking at Shanghai or Kuala Lumpur. It's extraordinary to find that the present owners did up the place in 1994; you wouldn't be surprised to learn it was 1954. But behind the scenes in this utterly traditional place, something new and rare is being hatched.
It's the only eaterie in Bath with a Michelin star, and proudly "sources" green stuff from its own vegetable garden. The head chef, Chris Horridge, learnt his gastronomic legerdemain from Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir, and is now so trendy he's representing the South-West in BBC2's Great British Menu.
Judging by my dinner, I'd say Mr Horridge is close to a genius, but there are two things wrong with his approach. One is pretentiousness. The Priory menu flannels on about his commitment to "Presentation, Flavour and, by no means least, Nutrition", as if no other chef in history had considered them priorities. He explains that he is "liaising with various scientists, a nutritionalist and other experts" to ensure that "ingredients in each of my dishes have been combined to enhance their nutrient value and bio-availability". I'm glad Mr Horridge is keen on healthy eating, but the tang of baloney is hard to stomach. The second problem is froth. Not linguistic froth, but gastro-froth. It's hard to find many dishes that aren't tricked out with "tomato fizz" or "coriander seed spume". I blame the guys at El Bulli and the Fat Duck for taking the concept of the "cappuccino" or "velouté" of vegetables and reducing them further to an aerosol spray; but it does nothing to enhance The Priory's excellent food.
Because Horridge is simply masterly at combining unusual flavours. A bonne bouche of scallops on puréed caper was a heavenly marriage; a palate-cleansing sorbet of red pepper and mandarin with fennel hit the tongue like a Haliborange tablet, but the flavours spread out with miraculous logic. A warm salmon confit with Bramley apple, slow-cooked for hours on (I'm guessing) gas mark 0.0001, was soft and intense (though covered with a cuckoo-spit spume of aniseed) and magically lifted by an angel's breath of apple purée and a whisper of ginseng. Boudin of quail was a mini-exhibition of game-bird bits – tender breast, a cute quail egg, a reduction of quail flesh to a mousse sausage. It was trickery, but it made sense.
The mains were mostly fantastic. The dab with lime pastille and crayfish served up a troika of delicate white fish, breadcrumbed and surrounded by exciting companions: ginger jelly, grape-shaped melon, mini-cucumbers that were courgette batons. It was like a Venetian masquerade passing across the slate dish. The crayfish, though, came with a "passionfruit and cocoa nib shot", which was a taste too far. Crayfish and cocoa? No way.
My "flash smoked duck, chicory, liquid aminos and Xeres vinegar" sounded baffling but was nicely cooked, velvety in texture, and accessorised, rather than smothered, by a chive and garlic purée and a shredded-duck pancake that was actually filled with celeriac. I'm suspicious of food made to resemble other food; but the Priory dishes are handled with infinite subtlety; they take you on a little journey, from sweet to savoury to something beyond both.
The prodigality of invention never flagged. Among the puddings was a quartet of small cremes brulées flavoured with garden produce: rosemary, geranium, ginger or lemon verbena, of which rosemary was outstanding. The chocolate infused with celery seed (I know – but it worked fine) came with a single kumquat on a bed of white "sour cherry snow": a crystallised sorbet so deliciously tart you could tell it started life as real cherries, rather than a lab flavour. The drolly titled "Cornish pasta of lemon balm" was a ravioli of lemon custard, well-textured but a touch redolent of washing-up liquid. The restaurant manager, a charming chap called Daniel, offered try-out spoonfuls of the other puddings, and remembered to top up the seriously wonderful Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
We ended the meal replete and slightly exhausted, like people who've been voyaging in unfamiliar territories and have returned rejoicing. It was the most imaginative cooking I've encountered this year. I'd happily give Mr Horridge five stars, if only he could re-think his commitment to Presentation, and give up the bloody cuckoo-spit.
The Bath Priory Restaurant, Weston Road, Bath (01225 331922)
Around £180 for two, with wine
By Madeleine Lim
The Olive Tree
Accomplished modern Brit food; mains include Cornish red mullet with lemon thyme crusted potatoes, black olive beignet and cured tomatoes.
The Queensberry Hotel, Russel Street, Bath (01225 447928)
Chef Hywel Jones makes the most of locally sourced organic ingredients at this elegant hotel-restaurant just outside town; around £65 for a 3-course set dinner.
Colerne, Wiltshire (01225 742777)
Inspired veggie cooking – try the fragrant coconut laksa with crispy spring vegetables, rice noodles, crispy tofu and sprouting seeds (£14.95).
2 North Parade Passage, Bath (01225 446059)
The Dower House
Mains such as roast cod cheeks with Iberico ham, pickled girolles and Duke of York potatoes reflect the ambitious cuisine at this Royal Crescent Hotel restaurant.
16 Royal Crescent, Bath (01225 823333)