Mallory Court Hotel, Warwickshire
My first visit to Mallory Court was for a Saturday lunch, way back in October 1986. Simon Carter and I chose a range of classical and nouvelle dishes, enjoying a terrine of warm sole and salmon with langoustine tails, a rendevous of seafood, chicken with wild mushrooms and Madeira, blackcurrant delice and a trio of sorbets. The charming Jeremy Mort was front of house whilst co owner and head chef Alan Holland produced the highly acclaimed cuisine.
I wrote in my report of the “memorable and civilised gastronomic experience…mastery in the kitchen…impeccable service.” These features are much in evidence today, some 26 years later, during which time there have been changes of ownership, management, chefs and cooking styles. Now, as then, Mallory Court is rated highly in the restaurant guides, remains a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux Association and continues to be the proud possessor of a Michelin star. Equally important, the food served in the Dining Room continues to be in perfect harmony with the elegant and sophisticated surroundings of the hotel itself.
Overseeing the kitchen is Simon Haigh, who became head chef in December 2001. He won a Michelin star in 2003, which he has since retained. His new position as Executive Chef for the whole Eden Hotel Collection utilises to the full his creative talents and extensive experience. This includes spells at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Inverlochy Castle (1993-2001) where he won his first Michelin star, and Seaham Hall, where he gained three AA rosettes within a year.
Simon Haigh, Executive Chef.
I met Simon and current head chef Andrew Scott, with whom he has worked for ten years. They share the same consistent approaches towards management, sourcing of produce and menu construction
A more collaborative approach is preferred to the seemingly outdated confrontational kitchen management style: Positive results are achieved through the involvement of all – for instance in the tasting of new dishes – working as a team, with a sense of camaraderie: a “band of brothers” as Andrew put it. This was also beneficial for staff retention, the average stay for the brigade of eight being above average at four to five years, with others returning after stints elsewhere.
Maximising the use of local and seasonal ingredients is an essential prerequisite for their range of menus. For instance beef, including the renown Dexter breed, comes from three small Warwickshire farms. Much of the fruit, vegetables and herbs come from the hotel’s extensive organic kitchen garden, about which Simon has developed a passionate interest. He regretted the rain had almost destroyed this year’s crop of asparagus, hence its absence from the menu. However, he enthused about the peaches, apricots, mirabelles and figs – amongst an abundance of other home grown fruit and vegetables – which flourish in the south facing gardens. The vegetable and herb areas, I was told, are protected by privet hedging and netting from the voracious rabbit population.
They both agreed that adapting the cuisine to suit the traditional, country house environment and differing types of clientele is important. Being both a destination restaurant, and one with regular local diners, meeting the expectations of both was crucial. One way was through a choice of menus. The seasonal carte, with six options in each course, (£59.50 including coffee and petit fours) showcases both classical and more contemporary dishes, the main courses of which might be changed daily. The daily dinner menu (£45) has a more limited choice while the six course tasting menu (£79 – with a flight of wines £130) is ideal for those who like surprises and wish to see the range of the kitchen’s expertise.
As befitting the modern setting of the conference and banqueting Knight’s Suite, the Brasserie has a more informal, contemporary menu, ranging from Caesar salad to braised ox cheek.
As might be expected from his impressive CV, the cooking style of Simon Haigh showcases and refines classical techniques. Shellfish bisque, foie gras terrine, breast of duck with its confit and beef fillet all feature on the carte. Modern elements and techniques add interest, as in “Coronation crab,” shallot textures, hot rice pudding soufflé, and deconstructed lemon meringue pie. Dishes are multi component, but not at the expense of the main ingredient, so he is careful not to gild the lily. Tastes are distinct and saucing, a particular strength, enhances rather than overwhelms. Combinations of flavours and textures are harmonious if unusual and unexpected. Timing is well judged, and presentation is artistic with clean lines.
Our dinner was taken in the long, oak panelled dining room, the crowning glory of the hotel. With only one window at the far end, wall lights and table candles illuminate the round, well spaced tables. Supremely comfortable carver chairs, fine napery and tapestry carpeting add to the sense of formal luxury. Whilst jacket and tie are not obligatory, as they were in 1986, the smart dress code was observed by all diners.
Given the embarrassment of choice, time was taken over champagne and canapés in the lounge to study the three menus. Whilst tasting menus are always attractive, we decided to choose from the seasonal carte.
Of the breads offered, focaccia was outstanding with its moist crumb and herby flavour.
An amuse bouche saw a seared scallop, perfectly timed to produce a caramelised crust and soft, succulent flesh. Curried lentils with a lemon grass and ginger foam provided a bold foil to the beautifully sweet bivalve.
The first starter featured a well seasoned ballotine of rabbit, gently poached to preserve its delicate gamey flavour. Slices and puree of baby carrot were lifted by a sweet and sour dressing. Brown beech mushrooms added textural interest whilst a velvety smooth, gently flavoured violent mustard ice cream, perched on dried crunchy grains, lifted this simple dish to lofty Michelin heights.
In another first course, the creamy, delicate quality of spiced foie gras was enhanced by a thin coating of gingerbread crumbs. Poached rhubarb cut the richness of this delectable piece of liver, whilst smoked duck and granola added contrasting flavour and texture.
Main courses were equally accomplished.
A thick fillet of utterly fresh pan fried red mullet had firm, yet translucent texture. Its robust flavour stood up to the strong tasting and well executed crab risotto and intense bisque sauce, roasted fennel added a muted aniseed flavour which complemented the other elements well.
Fine meat cookery was shown in a dish of Dexter beef. This rare breed, small in size but big on flavour, came in two forms: a medium rare fillet and unctuous, melting slow cooked shin. Potato mousseline, fresh morels, with their deeply earthy flavour, and shallot textures – tempura rings, whole and shredded caramelised – proved admirable accompaniments, whilst the whole dish was bought together by a deeply flavoured Madeira sauce.
Desserts show, possibly, the greatest imagination and creativity: Indeed a certain playfulness in evidence.
A deconstructed lemon meringue pie was, unlike many other modern versions, still recognisable as such. A rectangle of the thick, lemon curd pie was dressed with shards of crisp meringue and garnished with soft meringue peaks. A quenelle of pine nut ice cream, resting on crushed pine nuts and pine nut butter served transformed this essentially simple dessert into a highly complex and impressive one.
Another composite dessert centred on a lightly textured warm peanut cake. Richness was added by chocolate textures of soft milk chocolate mousse and firm discs of dark chocolate ganache. Salted caramel and bananas complete this indulgent confection.
Of the delightful petit fours served with coffee, the fruit jellies, macaroons and chocolates were particularly well made.
Overall, this was a first rate meal accompanied by equally good service that was well informed, solicitous but unobtrusive. Overseen by the charming Dominique, the restaurant manager who also recommended wines by the glass, the evening proceeded seamlessly to a most satisfying conclusion.