Half Scottish, Half Japanese. Tempura Mars bar?

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I began writing this blog in October 2010 as a new father documenting food in his family. Before I knew it, I was in the final of MasterChef 2012. Now cooking is no longer just a hobby.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Gidleigh Park

During Jemma’s pregnancy, friends, family and strangers offered advice, some solicited, on everything from epidurals, to push chairs, to parenting. We were, in truth, rather slow getting ready for our impending arrival. While we blamed the bombardment of advice and overwhelming choice of products, we were also busy denying that the growing bump might require anything more than a womb for transport and a placenta for nourishment.
Gidleigh Park

Stubbornly, we were not about to let pregnancy impinge on our ‘final’ summer together. So one piece of advice that we did take was to indulge ourselves in a Last Supper. I had resolved to visit Gidleigh Park ever since seeing an interview with Executive Chef, Michael Caines, on a TV programme about the secretive Michelin star rating system. The restaurant won two stars in 1999 and has retained its status ever since. This weekend, it was rated the best restaurant in the UK by the Sunday Times, above The Fat Duck.

The Michelin inspectors award two stars for “Excellent Cooking, worth a detour”. If, however, some of your worst arguments are born in the car, then I do not recommend a detour on a hot summer day. Especially if your companion is a heavily pregnant lady with reduced bladder capacity. The 35 mile journey to Chagford took two hours because the A385 was closed by an accident. Jemma has a love hate relationship with our sat nav at the best of times but we now relied upon it to find an alternative way along the single lanes of Dartmoor National Park.

We were already running late when we got stuck behind a sheep and played sheepdog for a quarter of a mile. Fortunately, humour tempered Jemma’s tantrum as it literally crapped itself when she got out of the car to shepherd it into a field. Finally a sign announced Gidleigh Park, with the message “Keep heart, you are still en route”. So it was with some relief, after almost two miles down a cul-de-sac, that we saw the black and white Tudor façade. After a few deep breaths in the car park and a visit to the Powder room, we were ready to sit down for our much heralded, self indulgent treat. Although half an hour late, we were instantly put at ease by being shown to a lounge where families and couples were enjoying an aperitif. The plumped cushions released a sigh on our behalf.

Jemma lowered the tone by picking up a copy of the Daily Mail and I followed by ordering a beer. More civilized clientele sipped on champagne and gin and tonics. We were presented with a warm pea soup and foie gras with rhubarb compote as we contemplated our choices. Both were delicious and a sign of good things to come. The first choice was whether to go for broke on the A La Carte or Tasting menus or economise with the Set Menu. Although there were three options for each course on the Set Menu and none were obviously duds, we both would have gone for the same main course, so I magnanimously volunteered to go A La Carte.
Foie gras with rhubarb compote

The atmosphere was wonderfully relaxing. Although it was the Saturday of a Bank Holiday in Devon, you knew that you would not be required to give the table back. The staff, while properly delicate and formal, put their guests at ease, easier said than done in a country house hotel, which can easily become stiff and stuffy. In the wood paneled dining room, guests were on their best behaviour and in their finest garments, celebrating a wedding, an anniversary or, in our case, the end of one chapter in our life and the beginning of a new one. Where other restaurants would have squeezed in additional covers, there were generous gaps between tables, which afforded privacy and added to the sense of luxury, without diminishing the sense of occasion that buzzed between tables.
Frogs' legs and crayfish, snail, garlic and nettle risotto

First, we were served an amuse bouche, a finely sieved tomato gazpacho, garnished with tiny cubes of cucumber and a basil oil which peppered the palate nicely. We both had to resist the urge to fill up on delicious home baked breads.
Free range chicken, chicken consommé, garden vegetables and truffled egg yolk

The service was reassuringly perfect: charming, friendly and not once did we feel interrupted. My starter sounded promising: frogs' legs and crayfish on snail, nettle and garlic risotto. The frog thighs retained their succulence in a light breadcrumb batter and the bed of risotto had a rich colour of chlorophyll. It was delicious but I couldn’t discern the snails, garlic or the nettles. Jemma had chicken in its own consommé, with summer vegetables and truffled eggs. The consommé was excellent, but not quite as memorable as a similar dish that we had in France. Although the vegetables and eggs were perfectly cooked, my starter won out.
Cornish cod, belly pork,  pea purée and a shallot and smoked bacon velouté 

By the time we were ready for main course, we had passed two deliciously leisurely hours. Jemma’s Cornish Cod with belly pork and pea puree was outstanding - I could tell from the way that her eyebrows lifted as the first mouthful passed her lips that my rose veal and sweetbreads with watercress puree and sherry cream sauce would struggle to compete. The meat was cooked perfectly but the puree was over salted which was a shame since I love the fresh, peppery taste of watercress. The peeled plum tomato reminded me of the ones you get in tins and didn’t add anything to the dish for me. As we traded, my own eyebrows silently expressed their assent that the cod beat the veal.
Rosé veal and sweetbreads, watercress purée, braised lettuce,
shimeji mushrooms, button onions with a Sherry cream sauce

Fortunately, the game of food envy ended in a draw, since we shared a dessert of strawberry mousse, jelly and sorbet. Normally, Jemma would rather spend 60p on a chocolate bar than £6 on a dessert in a restaurant but this was the finest dessert either of us have had in a very long time. We retired to the patio for coffee and petits fours and to absorb a wonderful afternoon. All around us, others were doing the same, enjoying the tranquility of the surroundings, taking the Boundary walk around the grounds, through the water garden and Bluebell Wood, each trying to make it last as long as possible.
Strawberry mousse, palmier biscuit with
strawberry jelly and sorbet, black olive and basil purée

The cooking is excellent, but the whole experience is special and well worth the detour. Highly recommended for a special occasion.
Petits fours

1 comment:

  1. Koj...!!! Saw Michael Caines being interviewed on Breakfast News this morning... very interesting guy, and very proud of all their recently won awards!
    Am definitely going to try and visit Gideligh in the not too distant future!