Whatley Manor, Easton Grey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire
Saturday 05 September 2009
As Wiltshire locals will tell you, wiping tears of mirth from their eyes, Whatley Manor was once Twatley Farm. From the mid-19th century it was expanded by successive owners, who included a clergyman and a master of the Beaufort Hunt, all apparently unbothered by their hilarious address. Drive up to it today, and it looks rather stern and grey, like a posh orphanage. Once inside the main gates, you encounter a cobbled courtyard lit by a score of garden lamps and the orange glow from leaded windows. It's very welcoming, though not terribly English – possibly because the hotel is owned by a Swiss family, whose design sense owes more to modern Geneva than Victorian Gothic.
In The Dining Room, where I had the finest meal in a year, the décor is eclectic to a schizophrenic degree – square black mirrors, Japanese screens, dangly-tassel chandeliers, 1980s-style rag-rolled walls. You could be at one of a hundred destination hotels in Europe. The food, however, is unmistakably at the top level of modern Anglo-French cooking – both dramatic and subtle, constantly surprising and teasing the palate with little treats, but always putting cleverness at the service of gorgeous flavours.
The chef is Martin Burge, who has done time at L'Ortolan, Pied a Terre and John Burton Race's kitchen at the Landmark Hotel, as well as Le Manoir. Earlier this year he picked up his second Michelin star for his work at Whatley. On the evidence of my meal, he must be heading for a third.
Where do I start? With the amuse-bouche of poached quail egg with tiny leeks and kipper spume (heaven), the shot-glass of foie gras in a red wine jelly with slender croutons (bliss) or the mouthful of breadcrumbed goat's cheese with olive tapenade washed down by lovely cold "essence" of tomato and basil the colour of Chablis (miraculous)? The young waiting staff are mostly Swiss or German, and sometimes had language difficulties (you try saying "pannacotta with sherry jelly and coconut granita" when you're from Dortmund.) One girl assured us a bonne bouche was "blackcurrant and chloroform" – sadly, it was "clove foam", a Blumenthal-ish bit of nonsense served in a glass with a straw; it was like sucking flavoured air.
My starter of roasted quail breasts (boned, rolled and glazed in sticky sweet wine) offered a cornucopia of delights: the breasts sang along with a pea purée that was like ice-cream. Ballotines of quail legs rolled in gelatine were served on sticks like ice-lollies, alongside quail eggs deep-fried but with the yolks still runny. It was like an exhibition of the concept of Quail-ness at Tate Modern. My date's pan-fried scallops were gigantic. A light jus of beef and truffle was poured over just before serving (scallops and beef?) and got on brilliantly. The mushroom purée, served with a fairground loop-the-loop of potato, was a knockout. You thought mushroom purée was boring? Not in Mr Burge's hands. If the scallops were the main event, everything else complemented them, and brought out their scallop-osity.
The main-course corn-fed poussin ("its juices liaised with Madeira" – I loved the executive-speak of "liaised" until I realised it should have been "laced") was crispy outside, tender and sweet inside, the sauce caramelly (that was the Madeira), the accompanying parmesan bonbons crunchy and creamy. My lamb loin offered two loin tranches, stunningly pink and perfect, served on soft samphire with a swoop of white wine sauce. It came with a cake of "braised chest", very fibrous and crumbly Sunday-lunch lamb; the menu didn't mention the sweetbreads (very soft and delicately cooked) or the lamb-mince samosa that came too; both were gasp-inducingly good.
You could whine that Mr Burge tends to repeat his effects through the meal, so that you can find pea purée, truffles and asparagus appearing unannounced in successive courses. But it's hard to fault the ambition, the confidence and the high style of his cooking. So much thought had clearly gone into the puddings. The chocolate mousse was a long train-set on a glass plate, the chocolate "carriages" alternating with fennel (yes, fennel) meringues. Carpaccio of peach lay under a white peach sorbet beside a parfait of white chocolate and a line of raspberries, each one dotted with coulis. It was an orgy of soft fruits in gorgeous colours and I didn't want it to end.
This was a banquet that approached everything, from shellfish to samphire, with the utmost respect, and teased out their flavours with the utmost seductiveness. With a Moulin a Vent Beaujolais from the lower end of the wine list, dinner wasn't cheap, but I wouldn't begrudge a cent to have food of this quality, nor a moment spent in the charming company of the serving staff. Mr Burge and his team go straight to the top of my list of Unmissable Restaurants, and I urge you to try them as soon as your personal economy allows.
Whatley Manor, Easton Grey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire (01666 822888)
About £190 for two, with wine.
Tipping policy: "A 10 per cent service charge is included in the price of all food and drink. No tips are required. All the service charge goes to the staff"
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