Morston Hall, Morston, Holt, Norfolk
Saturday 09 June 2012
Early success can be tough for creative types. The bargain bins are crammed with unfancied releases by brilliant songwriters and wunderkind filmmakers who never found an audience after making their dazzling debuts.
Chefs, too, can buckle under the strain of early glory, and end their careers joylessly grinding out the greatest hits that won them fame. The awards that decorate the entrance hall of Morston Hall, the north Norfolk redoubt of former boy-wonder Galton Blackiston, tell a story of meteoric success – the walls are barely visible beneath the thickets of rosettes and stars. Closer inspection reveals that most of them date from the early-Nineties, when Blackiston and his wife Tracy opened for business in this handsome flint-fronted manor house, and got their first rave review (from Emily Green, in The Independent).
This year celebrating his 20th anniversary at Morston, Blackiston still looks impossibly boyish, as his appearances on TV shows such as Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen bear witness. But despite its owner's high media profile, Morston Hall isn't somewhere you hear foodies getting excited about. Clearly, though, it has been doing something right all these years. The Michelin star awarded in 1999, Norfolk's first, has been retained, and regulars include Delia Smith, who encouraged local lad Blackiston to return to his native Norfolk all those years ago.
The location is a draw; this stretch of coastline is so mistily picturesque, it seems to have been designed by a committee of water-colourists. The hotel, originally a 17th-century farmhouse, is buffed, smart and a bit matchy-matchy. The heart of the operation is the restaurant, arranged over three interconnecting rooms, each table swagged like a bishop and sprouting a gleaming array of silver and glass.
There's only one sitting for dinner, and no choice about what to eat; Blackiston offers a six-course tasting menu, which changes daily, and draws heavily on local produce. Guests gather in the bar at the appointed time, like characters from a country-house murder mystery. All of them, on our midweek visit, were couples, mainly middle-aged and smartly turned out. (There's no dress code, but according to the hotel information "most gentlemen prefer to wear a jacket and tie".) So far, so conventional. And then the food arrived and everything changed.
First, an appetiser of rabbit loin, with camomile-poached carrots and a slick of some kind of dark-green herb emulsion, plus a little edible flower that delivered a synaesthetic rush; suddenly we were in a meadow, nibbling on a blade of grass. Then, a thrillingly odd vegetable dish built around a slice of whole celeriac, slow-cooked in butter, thyme and sage to leave the exterior a startling black. The bitter-sweet flesh had a silvery, ascetic fineness, balanced by a cosseting lemon beurre blanc traced with black truffle, and a tangle of wild garlic. Next up, lobster claws, cured in salt and sugar then poached in butter; sweet and soft, and balanced by a mildly astringent sauce of burnt leeks.
The smokehouse, used for breakfast kippers, had been pressed into service again for the main dish, rib of Aberdeen Angus, which came with piped dots of oak-smoked mashed potato. The beef, cooked sous-vide to leave it as soft and characterless as veal, was the only miss of the meal; but there was so much else going on – an unctuous dice of creamed ox tongue, a single smoked oyster, a vivid slash of watercress purée, and some tiny, salt-baked turnips – that it didn't really matter.
Subtle, sophisticated and bang on trend, this was cooking as contemporary and exciting as any I've had recently. Blackiston's head chef, Richard Bainbridge, who joined Morston Hall at 17, has recently spent some time at Noma, and it shows. There's nothing too challenging or molecular here, although a foam did sneak in, in the form of a palate-cleansing grapefruit and champagne mousse, squirted from a siphon. And then we were back on safe ground with a vanilla panna cotta layered with rhubarb jelly.
Service, from a young and chatty team, is production-line perfect, though there's something a bit unsettling about this kind of synchronised dining; looking around at a room of couples all eating the same dish, you feel like you're in some kind of upmarket care home. And the waiting staff's well-drilled habit of approaching each table with "Sorry to interrupt you both..." did start to get a bit tired.
Blackiston himself, looking preposterously tanned and handsome, did the rounds at the end of the meal. He may no longer be the new new thing, but he's clearly still striving for excellence, and pushing in new directions. It's pleasing to be able to book-end his 20 years at Morston with another rave from The Independent. Something new to add to the display in reception, perhaps.
Morston Hall, Morston, Holt, Norfolk (01263 741041)
Fixed-price dinner; six courses for £62, before wine and service
Tipping policy:"No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Eat Anglia
Wiveton Farm Café
This café, serving delicious homemade food straight from the farm, is a Delia Smith favourite.
Open 9.30am-4.30pm, Wiveton Hall, Holt (01263 740 515)
A family-run restaurant near the beach which serves dishes such as red snapper fillet with tomato sauce, basil pesto and new potatoes (£14).
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