There is a style of cooking often found in hotels where the chef has decided that if you make the food look fancy (building towers out of squids and wafer-thin disks of dried turnip), and add peculiar ingredients (dollops of lavender mayonnaise perhaps, or nasturtiums) then everbody will consider it marvellous, even if it tastes like Tuc biscuits and conditioner. How refreshing, then, to find a country house hotel which threatens the same scary experience but where the food is an exquisite taste explosion.
The Gordleton Mill Hotel on the edge of the New Forest, is a pretty building in a gorgeous setting. A former water mill, it's surrounded by lawns and woodland, and crisscrossed by weirs, rivulets, mill ponds and ornamental bridges.
Whoever designed the interior of the lovely hotel clearly thought it was boring to plump for one style and has gone for a little bit of everything. In the sitting room above the mill workings we sat on pink paisley hotelesque chairs surrounded by flouncy pelmets, modern three-pronged carriage lamps with a glass ball on each prong, a roped-off area containing a pink model of a cockerel, mill machinery, and vegetable prints on beige tongue-and-groove walls from which also protruded a stag's head.
Downstairs in the dining-room we entered past a table where bottles of champagne were arranged as if tempting us to try and win one by throwing a hoop round it. It was a lovely airy room, with windows overlooking the watergardens. The floor is black and white tiled, there are mirrored pillars, potted palms, Seventies-style black-lacquer chairs, a big stone fireplace with jars of produce and a centrepiece round table bearing a stone-type model of a bowl of fruit. The effect was conservatory meets kitchen, meets New Forest, meets French Provencal meets Seventies bar, meets tombola.
Bemused, we took our seats at a table with lovely linen and sparkling glassware. It was Friday night and the room was pleasantly full with couples and foursomes and a nice air of occasion. Although we had arrived fearsomely late there was no attempt to punish us even subtly. The menu seemed terrifyingly expensive - pounds 10.50 to pounds 14 for starters, main courses pounds 19.50 to pounds 22 - until we took our first mouthful, and began to understand what we were paying for. This was all the more impressive since the said mouthful was of pig's trotter. I've always been nervous of unusual bits of animals in restaurants, since a traumatic visit to a posh establishment in France where, misunderstanding the maitre d's attempt to explain that we were eating lamb's cheek, I thought he was telling me I was wearing too much blusher. But although the little trotter slice was a post-traumatic-stress-inducing blusher pink it was a scrumptious little thing, tender and breaded and fruity tasting.
Chef Toby Hill, who's been at the Gordleton Mill for two years, trained under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. His menu is more traditional and French than that of many young chefs, with no more than a nod in the direction of a modish eclecticism frenzy. Yes, there were dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, chorizo, pumpkin and chocolate sauce with venison, but these were among red mullet and saffron soup, woodcock with bread mousse, and sea bream with bouillabaisse.
I started with ballotine of braised oxtail and foie gras in a sherry vinaigrette. The oxtail had been braised for hours in wine with baby leeks and carrots, then sealed in herbs and mustard and stuffed with foie gras and the vegetables. Poised on the top of celeriac, grain mustard and mayonnaise, it was fabulous. My companion went for the carpaccio of tuna with a salad of dried tomatoes, quails egg and a balsamic vinaigrette, piled into an haute-cuisine-style tower. Although she thought the combination sounded passe, she couldn't believe the taste. "How does anyone make balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes taste like that?" My friend does not, as a rule, like food. "But I can see the point of food if it tastes like this," she conceded.
She was almost equally enthusiastic about the roast monkfish tail with risotto of herbs, Parmesan, beetroot puree and a beetroot jus, only complaining that the monkfish was a little undercooked. Considering that she specialises in serving dishes just at the point when they are about to burst into flames, I think it would be fair to put this down to a matter of taste.
Where we did agree was that the wine waiter, Jean, was a charming young feller-me-lad. Fresh from the Crillon, he couldn't have been more attentive in helping us select a couple of half bottles off the cheaper end of the impressive, but massively top-heavy list, and explaining his plans to revamp it over the next few years with a new emphasis on bottles under pounds 30 and the non-millionaires among the clientele.
And so to the venison with chocolate sauce - a notion which suggested someone had once got the chocolate sauce mixed up with the gravy, or more specifically a terrifically delicate venison-based stock, made flavoursome, more by lots of bones than lots of boiling, sweetened with redcurrant jelly and a hint of the finest blackest chocolate. Gorgeous. This came with a superb pomme fondant, made by sticking a potato in a pan for ages with lots of huge pats of butter on top and therefore, though harmless-looking, very bad for diets.
A pudding of prune and armagnac souffle was tasty but more puddingy than you might expect from a souffle. Pistachio parfait, was the stylistic piece de resistance, designed like a miniature African village - little rondavels of parfait with cone-shaped roofs on - just the thing for a celebrity fundraising dinner for Oxfam.
Dinner, bed and breakfast came to pounds 235 plus service, which seemed fair. The day before we arrived, Toby Hills was awarded his first Michelin star - extremely well deserved - which will add a lovely touch between the vegetable prints, the pink cockerel and the stag's head.
GORDLETON MILL HOTEL Silver Street, Hordle, near Lymington, Hampshire SO41 6DJ. Tel: 01590 682219. Open Tue-Sun for lunch from 12-2 and Tue-Sat for dinner 7-9.30. No children under seven. Four-course set lunch pounds 28. Average a la carte price, pounds 40. Credit cards accepted
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