"Fine dining" commands a fine setting. The approach to Cliveden is just such a setting. A wide gravel drive passes through acres of woodland to a stunning, vast marble fountain and turns to face a beautiful, grey stone house, with an array of Bentleys and Aston Martins parked in front. The Buckinghamshire stately pile – made infamous by the Profumo affair in the 1960s – is now a luxury hotel, complete with a wood-panelled hall, opulent rooms with huge marble bathrooms and views over manicured lawns with tonsured hedges.
Clearly the hotel's clientele demands smart food, and executive head chef Chris Horridge, who arrived at Cliveden nine months ago from Bath Priory hotel, knows his onions – and quite a lot more besides.
He oversees the hotel's three restaurants, but it is at Waldo's that Horridge is given licence to play on fine dining's wilder shores. He is a pioneering force of "three-dimensional" cuisine – where flavour, presentation and nutrition are equally important (the last usually being a bit of an unloved child in haute cuisine).
I'm intrigued by Horridge's "With" and "Without" tasting menus – seven courses that encompass the greatest hits of fine dining – foie gras, sweetbreads, scallops and so on. What's clever is that the "Without" menu aims to offer rich, luxurious dishes without the cream, gluten or sugar.
I visit on a Saturday evening, when Waldo's is fully booked, which is some feat for an out-of-London restaurant where the set price is £79 a head without wine. Given it is named after the sculptor of that fountain, I expect to be shown into a room of splendid proportions and elegant design. Instead, Claire (who also knows her onions, and has been chosen especially for the task of being "With") and I are led downstairs to a windowless room that sits between the foot of the stairs and the main, albeit small, dining-room. There's an odd little bar, on which sit an array of odd little candles that resemble, barely believably, those Glade room-scenting monstrosities. There is, thankfully, no scent.
Behind our corner table is an alcove lined with books, but they are fake – just spines. Perhaps the staff believe that the spectacular menus placed in front of us are more than enough reading material. They might be right. It's enough to distract me from the room, the "books", the candles... everything. I drop the canapé – a small cylindrical red pepper and mandarin jelly served on a dessert spoon – as I'm so engrossed. But no sooner has the excellently friendly and knowledgeable sommelier brought a 2007 Laporte Sancerre than we're off to the "pre-starter": a shallow bowl of tomato seeds, black and green olive, aubergine and red pepper, served with a sparkling tomato essence poured over. It's one of those rare dining moments when you want to laugh with pleasure. The liquid fizzes with intense flavour, the perfect foil for the tangy little parcels of food.
And we're not even at the menu proper yet. Space prevents me from listing 14 dishes, but as I don't have any allergies, I can try everything, and I dip my fork across to try the richer, naughty plates that Claire has. Highlights include veal sweetbreads with parsley-root purée and cocoa nibs with a balm glaze, which is sensational. I've always shied away from sweetbreads but I feel safe in Horridge's hands – and am not disappointed. I don't think I'll ever eat it again as it can't ever be as tender and deftly flavoured. Pan-fried and sesame torchon with quince compote is similarly deliciously unctuous, and – OK I realise this is a meat-oriented list – warm oxtail terrine with crackling and a pickled red-cabbage sorbet is a perfectly judged mix of hot, cold, soft and sharp.
Meanwhile, on the "Without" menu, seared turbot with globe artichokes, citrus-zest purée and chorizo foam is dazzling. If nutritionally balanced food can be this good, who needs cream, sugar and wheat? The following dish, grouse with braised chicory, raspberry and almond purées is enough to confirm for me that Chris Horridge is a seriously brilliant chef. There are, I learn later, just four of them in the kitchen, turning out spectacular-tasting, beautiful-looking and reasonably healthy cuisine. He deserves plaudits, and they surely can't be long in arriving.
We search out Horridge after the meal to congratulate him on his big idea. Quite apart from that citrus purée, how he makes a lime crème brûlée without cream is a puzzle, but it tastes splendid, as does a three-part chocolate dessert without sugar. He isn't giving away any of his secrets, but informs us that the delicious peppermint mini meringue petits fours we're popping in our mouths are made with sorbitol and are, therefore, good for our teeth.
By the end of an intensely enriching but not overpowering dinner, it matters not a jot that the room has no view. Everything worth looking at is on the plate.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Waldo's at Cliveden Taplow, Berkshire, tel: 01628 668 561. Dinner, Tuesday-Saturday; about £220 for two, including wine
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