Emma Clegg heads to Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa to try out the seasonal tasting menus at the hotel’s Michelin starred Restaurant Hywel Jones
The dishes on haute cuisine menus have a seductive, musical vibe – some of them, like ‘verjus butter’ or ‘melon gazpacho’ are driven by the foreign words, which add a rarified, sexy quality to your pre-perception of a dish. Others earn their place through clever word combinations such as ‘wet almonds’ or ‘sea vegetables’. Others thrive off the cool names of the ingredients like ‘violet artichoke’ or ‘grelot onion’. The naming of dishes sets you up for the gastronomic ride. It’s the best sort of spin, frankly.
In the case of Restaurant Hywel Jones there is no spin. A brave assertion at the beginning of a review, you might suggest. But I have to describe the experience of my meal there and I’m banking on the linguistic refinement of the dishes to help me, so you can taste them metaphorically, as it were.
Lucknam Park, the home of Restaurant Hywel Jones, is a Palladian mansion dating from 1720, now run as a country house hotel. Set in 500 acres of listed parkland and gardens, there is a luxurious spa with saunas and hydrothermal pools, an equestrian centre, a cookery school and a brasserie. The restaurant, led by head chef Hywel Jones, has had a Michelin star since 2006, and in February 2017, after Hywel retained his Michelin star for the 12th consecutive year, it was relaunched as Restaurant Hywel Jones.
The restaurant operates independently from the other facilities at Lucknam Park, but if you visit, you will be drawn firmly into the brand. Turn off Doncombe Lane and ride majestically down the mile-long drive, framed by beech trees. (You can also arrive by helicopter, but you’ll need to give 24 hours notice).
We were shown first into the grand drawing room, with high ceilings and elaborate, weighty architraving, a Downton Abbey-esque interior and a crackling open fire. It was apéritif and canapé time. I chose a dry martini and the driver had a raspberry spritzer. This was made with raspberry infusion syrup, cloudy apple juice, lime juice and soda water – the hit of the raspberry fizz matched up to any alcoholic cocktail. The canapés were knock-you-down-amazing: goat’s cheese cones; round fritters with mozzarella and chilli jam; and dill rice crackers with smoked cod.
Escorted to the dining room (once the billiard room where the mansion’s inhabitants used to hide under the billiard table during wartime air raids) we were presented with a series of dilemmas: à la carte or tasting menu? Three courses or seven? Vegetarian or not? It was the roast violet artichoke (course two) that swung it for me; the vegetarian tasting menu had spun me in. Rob chose the seasonal tasting menu. We were recommended an Argentinian Malbec as a good accompaniment. As a post canapé, pre-prestarter I was served cauliflower mousse with mushrooms – which was divinely smooth and made me go home and seek out cauliflower recipes – and Rob had Scotch quail’s eggs. These were both served with nutty wholemeal bread and miniature white baguettes, which had shell-like bread horns in a twirly flourish at each end.
Course one for both of us was heritage beetroot and buffalo ricotta tart, a miniature work of art decorated with slender slices of beetroot and radish. Then came roast violet artichoke with melted leeks, hazelnut and Wiltshire truffle pesto (yowee), followed by miso and ginger glazed hispi cabbage (a sweet green cabbage) with plum chutney and crispy marinated tofu. The baked potato gnocchi with heritage carrots, yogurt and cumin granola was a stand-out highlight with the gnocchi and granola a refreshing alliterative combination. For laps two to four Rob sampled cured duck liver with salted almond caramel and spiced apple with brioche; poached Dover sole with shellfish and verjus butter, celeriac and sea vegetables; and roast Bwlch Farm venison with miso and ginger roast hispi.
The cheese course brought a piled-high trolley, from which we chose five to share, with a strong French emphasis, all served with truffle honey and quince jelly (drooling compulsory). Our pre-dessert was a mini cylinder of sorbet on a stick enclosed in a coat of white chocolate, with a sprinkling of lemon sherbet at the base of the bowl (soooo nice). Dessert brought me a vanilla crème brulée with Agen prunes and bitter orange marmalade doughnut (knock your socks off) and Rob butter-roast pear with buttermilk sorbet and walnut wafers.
This may sound a rich combination of ingredients and a dizzying host of dishes but each one was a few miniature bites of divinity and the meal as a whole didn’t feel at all de trop. And the flavours so lived up to their musical names.
Both the vegetarian and the seasonal tasting menus are £110.
Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa, Colerne, Chippenham. Tel: 01225 742777, visit: lucknampark.co.uk