Archive for July, 2011

Interview: Peter Egli, GM Whatley Manor, (July 2011)

Posted on: July 11th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Peter Egli has been General Manager, Whatley Manor Hotel for some seven years. The hotel, under Swiss ownership, is a beautiful five star property set in a country idyll – the Dining Room overseen by Michelin two star chef, Martin Burge, is not the only attraction.

Peter found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide about his experiences and philosophies. Interview took place in one of the beautiful reception rooms at Whatley Manor during July 2011.

Tell us some background about yourself?

As a young man I wanted to become a chef and that is how I originally came into the hospitality industry. In fact I studied an apprenticeship as a chef at a Boutique hotel on the river Rhine. The restaurant had one Michelin Star. I worked there for three years before going on to do a further year in restaurants in Switzerland. My Swiss military service intervened and I found myself in the air force doing many of the things that a hotel manager might do (as a quarter master) which led to my enrolling on a course in a Hotel management school in Lucerne.

I took my first role in the hotel management side of the trade at Grand Hotel’s Bad Ragaz in Switzerland. I stayed there for eleven years, working my way up through food and beverage to vice director and deputy manager to the general manager. It was a completely restructured resort with two properties – one five star property with 106 rooms and a four star property with 136 rooms. In the peak, the occupancy rates were around 90%. There were seven restaurants, a golf course and a large spa. The food and beverage operation was a challenge but one that I enjoyed very much.

One day I had a call from a friend of mine, that Whatley Manor was new and looking for a general manager. He told me about the property and I got goose bumps. I had a week or so holiday to take and contacted the owners with the idea of applying. Myself, my wife and my son came over to find out more about the local area and find out more about the property. We enjoyed our stay in Bath and the moment the gates opened here at Whatley Manor we felt so impressed and completely comfortable. I decided to present myself for the position and had two interviews; one here and one in Switzerland.

I started as General Manager in early 2004 and so have been here for over seven years now.

How have you stamped your personality on Whatley Manor?

The property was effectively brand new from the moment I arrived. I was interested in forming one team instead of little kingdoms in the hotel. Any hotel needs direction based on a central point and ideally starting with a mission statement.

With this in mind we looked into the history of the property and realised that we had the opportunity to provide the personal touch of a ‘family home’; at the same time we wanted to bring out the unique points of the property that make it special to guests and will make them want to come back. To this end we decided we would be around the guests in a natural and professional way but not be intrusive – in many five star properties you will find six, seven or eight waiters around guests at any one time but here we respect the need for relaxed conversation and the personal space of guests.

The property has a combination of facilities – spa, award winning restaurant, cinema, a multitude of gardens and so on – that are relatively unique in the world but also the comfort factor of coming to a home away from home.

My management philosophy is to give the direction in which to (develop and) run in your career but the responsibility is on the staff member to run well in that direction. Of course you want them to showcase their talents to the best of their ability but naturally you have to make corrections where necessary.

From a marketing perspective, we have an events guide for our guests. This is something that we hope generates positive emotions that let our regular customers know that we care as well as inform them what is happening over a six month period relating directly to the hotel or relevant to the area. They have proved so popular that guests inform us when they move house so that they continue to receive our events guide.

Tell us about membership of Relais & Chateaux

When Whatley Manor was created (and we have extended it in certain areas), we were looking for a partner association or organisation that would showcase the hotel abroad. The hotel has twenty-three rooms so whilst we were considering small leading hotels or the world, small luxury hotels of the world and so on, (the former requires the hotel to have more rooms so that was excluded early in the process), I had had the pleasure of staying in a Relais & Chateaux hotel and found all the ideals of their collection of properties to fit perfectly with Whatley Manor.

We applied and in the congress in Athens in November 2004 the hotel became part of the association and have been featured since the 2005 Guide. Creating guest experiences and that feeling of family are so important.

What do you think encourages return visits and moreover with longer duration of stay?

Perhaps it is a three pronged attraction; Whatley Manor has a Michelin Two Star restaurant which is important to guests: There is a unique array of facilities provided in a comfortable environment that means the guests needn’t use their car while they’re here – walks, spa, choice of dining, cinema, gardens (26 gardens for 23 rooms!): The hotel can be a base for the many activities available in this exciting part of the countryside.

More and more people need time away to re-charge and find a sense of peace and tranquillity. They lead hectic, busy lives and having some beautiful surroundings and facilities that aid relaxation is more important than ever. Whatley Manor scores very heavily in this regard. To be a home from home or a ‘spiritual home from home.’

The property adapts to the seasons beautifully; the rooms are soft and welcoming in winter through to bright and colourful in summer. So while the property is relatively small there are lots of hidden secrets to be found by the returning guests.

What are your plans for the future?

First of all to demonstrate that where you have 65 members of staff for 23 rooms that you can adapt and survive in times of recession. We have managed to increase occupancy rates and number of customers so we have adapted thus far very well indeed. We have the ability to listen and win over customers by being able to change to constructive feedback and appreciate and continue where we have done well.

We have an average occupancy of 65% so I’m delighted but we want that to grow. We wanted to start a new tradition not just start a trend: Keeping up attention to detail; a traditional shell but contemporary inside, therefore ensuring rooms are regularly refurbished to reflect the luxury quality that Whatley Manor stands for every day.

Accolades for the restaurant have also proven important and this takes time to follow through into significant gains in occupancy but no doubt the international recognition that comes with Michelin is excellent for the property. ‘The Dining Room’ is something we are very proud of and we believe showcases Martin Burge’s talents perfectly.

Maison Blanc Henley Revisited, July 2011

Posted on: July 5th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Fine-dining-guide was pleased to revisit Maison Blanc in Henley to sample the new Spring and Summer menu. This branch of the fourteen strong, up market chain is, after Oxford and Winchester, the third largest in terms of business, butprobably the most spacious in terms of accommodation, benefiting from outside tables and an upstairs extension. Given the expansion of this Thames side town, along with major attractions such as the famous Regatta, the Arts, Food and Literary festivals, the future success of the Henley branch seems assured.

The Maison Blanc concept, combining a classical boulangerie and patisserie with all day casual eating – breakfast, continental pastries, dishes from the oven, sandwiches, soups and salads and afternoon tea – has proved highly successful since its inception in 1981. But “up market” does not have to mean expensive. Indeed, one is struck by the value for money offered on the menu: ingredients are top notch and servings are very generous indeed. It is quite possible to enjoy a substantial meal and drink for around £10, especially if the large single portions are shared or the sharing platter is ordered.

The Spring and Summer menu dispenses with the slow cooked oven dishes – which included a delicious cassoulet – of the winter menu, and introduces new salads, ice cream and sorbets and a selection of new patisserie.

A salad of prosciutto, mozzarella, fig, pomegranate, avocado and mixed leaves was a best seller. This was not surprising given its utterly fresh combination of ingredients – a perfect taste of summer! Personally, I thought the leaves could be improved by a little seasoning beforehand. Nevertheless, the honey and mustard dressing, served in a separate jug, was a highly suitable, being not too powerful, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. Equally enticing amongst the four salads on the menu were those with Moroccan chicken or smoked salmon and avocado.

The best of the seven items from the oven proved to be the classic Croque Monsieur, each component of which was top quality and properly rendered. The pain de mie, ideal for tasting, was topped with tasty ham, generously enveloped in a well seasoned béchamel and finished under the grill with grated Emmental. This Swiss cheese retained a gentle piquancy in its golden crust.

A warm tart of light, crisp puff pastry, lined with melted cheese was spoilt by the disappointing quality of the main ingredient – roast asparagus. The sprue stalks were overcooked, stringy and difficult to cut or bite off.

Of the eleven sandwich items, Salt beef ciabatta was another new best seller, being available with white or brown (cereal) bread. The beef was properly cured, being supple, tender and flavoursome. The horseradish cream had a moderate kick which did not overwhelm the beef. The oversize wedge could happily be shared between two hungry diners.

For dessert, French Maison Blanc ice creams – vanilla or chocolate ganache – and organic raspberry sorbet made a welcome appearance, and were available separately or as a side serving with patisserie. The sorbet had great purity of fruit flavour, with a rustic texture suitably reflecting its artisan method of production. Crème Brulee, a popular favourite, is now also on the dessert list.

No visit to Maison Blanc would be complete without trying at least one of the delectable range of patisserie, the supreme quality of which has come to define the brand. On the list of sixteen, ranging from éclairs and mille feuilles to classic tart au citron, are four new items including Summer Fig Daquoise and Raspberry Cheesecake. A delicate construction of syrup soaked Genoise sponge, white chocolate pannacotta and elderflower jelly filled with wild strawberry and pomegranate, was the most exciting of the new range. However, the new style Strawberry tart with crisp chocolate pate sucree was let down by tired looking strawberries and inadequate fruit glaze.

Much better was the ever popular Fraisier, comprising light vanilla sponge, delicate mousseline cream and fresh strawberries. Instead of the ubiquitous thick green marzipan found elsewhere, a thin white chocolate glaze completed this exquisite dessert, and was all the better for it.

The cup cake and macaroon revolutions have not escaped the Maison Blanc brand with a variety of flavours on offer. More interesting was the new pastry of the month, a beehive shaped polenta chocolate and honey cake which was much lighter and less rich than it looked.


If not taking out a pastry or savoury item, then artisan bread would be a good alternative. The Brioche loaf, the basis for the excellent club and new chocolate, sandwiches, was irreproachable in its buttery richness. Equally accomplished was the sweet, glazed and braided Challah loaf,

Overall, the Henley branch continues to thrive, enticing its customers with a well judged price structure, and an embarrassment of choice from the wide range of sweet and savoury items. Competition in the town is fierce, and is likely to be even stronger given the imminent arrival of another top end, all day casual eating restaurant and patisserie.

Nevertheless, the strength of the Maison Blanc brand, the efficient service, and, above all, the sheer quality of the product, will enable it to hold its own comfortably.

The Ritz Restaurant Revisited Review, July 2011

Posted on: July 5th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Fine-dining-guide had the pleasure of revisiting the Ritz in July to sample dishes from the summer menu. As the sun set and the evening light faded, the glories of the rococo dining room, illuminated under the orange glow of the chandelier and wall lighting, appeared more sumptuous than ever, enhancing this unique dining experience.

John Williams’ inexhaustible creativity is given full rein in his use of top notch seasonal ingredients. These are employed in sensitive, balanced combinations and cooked with consummate skill to maximise their taste and flavour. Classicaltechniques and modern, sometimes playful, touches give the cuisine its distinctive character. As always, dishes are beautifully presented, avoiding over elaboration and allowing the main ingredient to take centre stage.

The starter of dressed crab roll has become a signature dish. The summer version used creme fraiche and coriander tobind the delicate white crab meat within its thin apple wrap. The perfectly judged balance of sweet crab meat and acidicapple was given herbal fragrance by flecks of coriander which happily did not overwhelm the whole dish. Avocado and Charentais melon add fresh, contrasting textural notes. This was a brilliant start to the meal (Wine: Ritz Selection Champagne, Cuvee Privee, N.V. Brut)

Another equally luxurious starter of warm native lobster was perfectly timed to retain its inherent tender sweetness. The tail and claw meat exhibited a rich succulence rarely matched in other (nameless) top end restaurants which so often overcook this crustacean. A sauce based on apple juice with grapefruit gel and segments provided the gentle acidity the dishneeded. Visually, the presentation was stunning. The light bodied Riesling, with its bright citrus aroma and minerality, went well with this dish. (2010 Riesling, Saint Clair, Marlborough, New Zealand)

Another Ritz signature cooking technique was demonstrated in the next dish. A whole turnip, wrapped in a salt crust and baked in hay, had been thinly sliced to serve as an open raviolo enveloping morels and button onions in a watercresssauce. The delicate muted flavour of the turnip allowed the rich smoky earthiness of the morels to shine. The soft, honeycomb like texture of the fungus also provided a good contrast to the crispness of the onions, the sweetness of whichbalanced savoury elements perfectly. The freshness and good balance of the Pinot Gris proved to be another fine match for the food (2007 Pinot Gris, Hugel et Fils, Alsace, France)

Fish cookery, whether using the humble mackerel or the noble halibut, has always been a forte of the Ritz kitchens. The composite dish offered was a veritable tour de force of conception, execution and presentation. Two perfectly trimmed Dover sole fillets were sandwiched together with leaves of lemon verbena which succeeded in enhancing the fish’s distinctive mild flavour. The timing to the cooking retained its firm texture. A light, balanced sauce of acidic verjus with sweet golden raisins lifted the whole dish. By way of contrast and added richness, a bowl of lobster fricassee, deeply flavoured in thick, creamy bisque, was served as an accompaniment. The warm, fruity character and aromatic notes of the Italian Chardonnay worked well with the fish. (2008 Marinali Bianco, Villa Sandi, Veneto, Italy)

Next to be served was a lamb dish which could be described as “summer on a plate.”. Noisettes of new season’s milk fed lamb were cooked pink, producing a meltingly tender, rich tasting result. A crisp beignet of slow cooked shoulder meat added textural and flavour contrast. Delicately spiked rosemary curd, made from lamb’s milk, provided some of the saucing, in addition to the rich but light jus. Finally, potato fondant, smoked aubergine, courgette flower, sun dried tomato and basil leaf garnishes evoked all the fresh and vibrant flavours of summer’s bounty. A Chilean Merlot of elegant and complex character was served with this dish. (2008 Angustora, Merlot, Grand Reserva, Casa Silva, Colchagua Valley, Chile)

Two desserts exemplified the skilled craftsmanship and imagination of the pastry section, worthy of Careme himself.

The first highlighted a port roasted fig and its intense sorbet resting on caramelised rice pudding, itself contained in cinnamon shortbread case. The whole construction was then topped with a gossamer- like cage of spun sugar. Perfection!

Vacherin Glace was a playful deconstructed version of the French classic. Here the lemon verbena cream formed the base,whilst nodules of meringue, along with raspberries, ice cream and tuile biscuit decorated the top. The sweet and fragrantflavours combined with soft and crisp textures, made this an exciting new dessert. The rose and lychee aroma of the accompanying sweet wine complemented the desserts well, (2007 Elysium, Black Muscat, A Quade, California, USA)

Other aspects of the meal were all first rate, from the excellent breads – the bacon brioche is particularly fine – to the coffee and petits fours. The efficient service, under the scrutiny of Luigi Cagnin, was welcoming, well informed and unobtrusive.

As stated in my previous review, the talents of John Williams and his team have yet to receive the Michelin starred recognition they deserve. The summer menu at the Ritz can only serve to confirm the brilliance of the their output. Let us all hope The Ritz receives good news in September!