Georgette McCready discovers a springtime menu crafted by a chef at the top of his game at The Olive Tree
A head chef on fine form in the kitchen is like a Premier League footballer in terms of jaw-dropping skills for an appreciative audience. Yes, anyone can kick a ball, or serve some vegetables, but these experts seem to be able to almost effortlessly create something so beautiful and skilful out of the simplest thing.
Take the little plate of amuse bouches which The Olive Tree chef Chris Cleghorn woos his diners with before the main event even begins. There’s a tiny profiterole, barely bigger than your thumb joint, topped with a neat drizzle of chocolate. Although, of course it’s not chocolate, but deliciously umami truffle, while inside the profiterole is creamy savoury Tamworth cheese. We marvel at this and at the shell-like squid ink cracker topped with pink pearls of roe and salmon mousse. Both are the perfect appetiser, tantalising our tastebuds for more, please.
It takes a certain kind of patient, inventive genius to make these exquisite miniatures only for people to scoff them in two greedy bites, but Chris Cleghorn is such a man.
He keeps his menus simple. Each dish is summed up in less than half a dozen words. If you want to know more about how the ingredients will be served, ask the waiting staff who have tasted the dishes in their development stage and clearly relish this perk of the job. They also explain that you can opt for the seasonal tasting menu, or Chris’s signature tastings menu, or simply dive in and mix and match as your fancy takes you. Starters on the seasonal menu (served Sunday to Thursday) are £13.50, main courses £26.50 and puddings are £9.50. There’s a separate purely vegetarian menu too.
The last time we dined at The Olive Tree I’d enjoyed crab lasagne, a pale pink tower served in a black bowl in a sea of lobster bisque, topped with a single basil leaf. A vision and taste of intense loveliness, I had raved about its subtle layers of flavour. On this occasion, working on the last Rollo principle, I let John choose it. He agreed that my enthusiasm had been justified.
My starter read on paper as simply mackerel, cured, avocado, cucumber, pink grapefruit. Again, pretty as a picture, it whetted the appetite by appearance alone. The flavours were perfectly aligned – slender disks of cured fish met soft, creamy avocado balls and cool chunks of cucumber, with small cubes of pink grapefruit jelly.
Across the dining room a pair of DFLs (Down from Londons) were enthusing about their experience, praising the front of house for the friendly yet efficient service, the food (‘better than we had at Le Gavroche recently’) and the wine list (‘how clever of you to get that Moroccan wine, it’s extremely rare’). Praise indeed.
We sat and enjoyed the theatre of fine dining, sipping a chilled Muscadet (£30 a bottle), as the main courses arrived. Mine was two pieces of rare, perfectly tender venison loin served with celeriac mash, roasted grelot onion and hazelnuts. All redolent of an English woodland, hearty, earthy and tasty. But wait. Blackberries? How does a chef who swears by seasonality square these fruits in spring? He gently pickles them in elderflower in the autumn, is the answer.
John’s English veal loin was cleverly teamed up with black truffle infused mash, shallots and the first of the new Cornish wild garlic.
If we were a more flamboyant race we’d have been standing and applauding every course, waving our napkins and kissing our fingers to the air. But being British we merely smiled quietly and contented ourselves with an understated: “Mmm, well yes. That was delicious.”
We had to try one of Chris’ famous puddings. John doesn’t have a sweeth tooth so opted for Roquefort with celery pear sorbet. And this was a happy marriage of salty, creamy cheese cut coolly through with delicate fruit and crisp celery.
Chocolate lovers, be prepared for pudding envy. Imagine an ingot of the finest milk chocolate that you satisfyingly crack open with a fork, to find sweet and salt peanut parfait inside, with an unctuous salted caramel ice cream on the side. As good a pudding as you could wish for.
If you’re thinking of treating yourself to a truly excellent dinner any time soon, I’d get yourself a table at The Olive Tree. We’re told that Chef is working on a new generation of petits fours that he’s creating to leave his diners sighing with pleasure.
This indeed is a British player at the very top of his beautiful game.