Archive for June, 2012

The White Oak, Restaurant Review, Cookham, June 2012

Posted on: June 25th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
White Oak Interior

Interior of The White Oak in Cookham, Bershire


The attractive Berkshire town of Cookham, just north of Maidenhead, has never been short of places to eat and drink. Its riverside walks, picturesque old village high street and famous Stanley Spencer Gallery attract large numbers of visitors each year, whilst its largely professional population, familiar with many celebrated restaurants in this prosperous part of the Thames Valley, are amongst the most discerning diners in the south east.

The White Oak is a well established pub located on the Pound, a narrow link between the older and newer parts of Cookham. The long, red brick exterior, designed in a neo Georgian style with sash windows presents an attractive facade. Inside, the reception, bar and dimly lit lounge lead to a long 55 cover dining room with French windows at the far end leading to a terrace and garden. Furnishing and fittings are a harmonious blend of rustic and modern chic. Oak veneered undressed tables, in a variety of shapes and sizes, are well spaced and paired with an assortment of chairs, including a few in a reproduction Louis XVI style. Along the length of the room, a banquette in reddish brown leather offers comfortable alternative seating. The décor is a pleasant coffee and beige, punctuated by faux 18th century mirrors, sepia photographs and a variety of prints. Chandeliers, hanging lampshades and spotlighting offer ample illumination.

Having undergone changes of ownership, The White Oak is now in the hands of   Henry and Katherine Cripps, passionate restaurateurs who are also the proprietors of The Greene Oak in Windsor and The Three Oaks in Gerrard’s Cross. Although all three “country pubs and eating houses” offer delicious, well cooked food, it is The White Oak that is well on its way in achieving distinction. This is largely because of pedigree of its current chef, who has been in post since November 2011.

Head Chef Clive Dixon

Head Chef Clive Dixon

Clive Dixon has followed in the path of an increasing number of those in his profession who have forsaken fine dining for a simpler, more accessible style of cooking. Having gained a Michelin star at Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, and with experience in the kitchens of top chefs such as David Everitt-Mathias, Pierre Koffmann and Heston Blumental, his CV would open doors to any restaurant of his choice. Instead, he has decided to become chef patron of his own gastro pub. With no shortage of competition from a variety of cuisines, his modern British cooking has nevertheless hit the mark, attracting a regular, enthusiastic clientele.

Not that “simpler, more accessible” cooking is less demanding on the chef; far from it. Ingredients have to be impeccable and there is nowhere to hide if preparation and cooking are not spot on. In these respects, Clive Dixon’s strong links with some of the UK’s top suppliers, notably Aubrey Allen butchers and Channel Fisheries of Brixham, coupled with his fine technical skills, have put him at a distinct advantage. Produce – whether humble or elevated – are treated sensitively, combined to showcase taste and texture, cooked with precision, and presented in a pleasing, unadorned rustic style. The lack of pretension, with the true flavours of prime ingredients shining through, is a major strength here.

A seasonally changing menu of eight starters, eight mains and six desserts including cheese, allows for the full range of cooking skills to be demonstrated, with some unusual as well as familiar options. Tea smoked salmon and hay cooked ham feature on the starters; confit duck, Wagyu burgers and steak and chips are amongst the mains; and crème brulee or hot brioche doughnuts are two of the dessert choices.

Fine Dining Guide visited White Oak on a Friday evening in June.

Olive and pumpkin bread were both well made, with crisp crusts and firm crumb.

From the main menu, a playful “Crab sandwich” starter was a delight. Instead of the usual white meat came a generous serving of the much underused but flavoursome brown meat, mixed with mayonnaise and herbs to cut its deep intensity.  This was sandwiched between thin, melba toast like layers of crisp pumpkin bread called snippets and garnished with peppery land cress.  Overall, the components formed a lively, fresh tasting dish.


Another more robust starter featured a stew of cuttlefish. Gently braised in red wine with a base of onions, garlic, tomatoes and stock, this underrated cephalopod was tastier than squid and softer than octopus. This was a fine example of slow food at its best.


The two main courses sampled were models of their kind – tried and tested classics.

Pan fried skate was precisely timed to do full justice to the soft melting texture of the mild, sweet flesh. The thick wing, dressed with capers, lemon and beurre noisette, had all the piquant vibrancy and nutty butteriness associated with dish. The vegetable garnish, a cauliflower puree, had a caramelised quality which worked well with the other elements. The generous portion of triple cooked chips, although expertly rendered, were not necessary to complete the dish.


A main course of Cornish lamb – favoured above more local breeds – again featured an underused cut, the neck fillet, which is sweeter than the ubiquitous chump or rump. Seared and cooked pink to maximise its flavour, this perfectly seasoned piece of meat came with deep fried sweetbreads, the creamy texture, crisp coating and pronounced flavour of which worked well with the fillet. The accompaniments – creamed cabbage, confit potatoes, roasted garlic came and a rich jus were skilfully executed, making this a well rounded dish.


Desserts demonstrated skill in execution.

A well made individual strawberry trifle was given extra texture with the addition of crushed meringue. The addition of lavender in the custard was precisely judged so as not to be overwhelming.  Here was a successful twist on a classic dessert.


With starters ranging from £6 to £9, mains £12 to £25, and desserts £6 to £7, dining at The White Oak is accessible to most pockets. In addition, the Menu Auberge, three courses for £19, available at lunch and dinner offers exceptional value for money. A select list of wines, by the glass and bottle, also offers a good range at reasonable prices.

More important are the unquestioned quality of the cooking and the welcoming, friendly service. In particular, Jay, the engaging manager, spoke with detailed knowledge and enthusiasm about the restaurant in which he takes particular pride.

It is easy to see why The White Oak has become a successful neighbourhood restaurant. Far from producing food for the lowest common denominator, Clive Dixon has made a virtue of simplicity, attracting a sophisticated clientele who appreciate the care and attention needed at his level of cooking. We will follow his career at Cookham with interest.

John Campbell Pop-up at South Lodge, June 2012

Posted on: June 25th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
John Campbell Brigade at "The Pass" South Lodge

John Campbell (Centre) with brigade at "The Pass" South Lodge


What do talented chefs do after leaving a well established, Michelin starred restaurant? Set up a pop up restaurant of course! This provides an opportunity to showcase their culinary creativity without the hassle of finding suitable premises and recruiting a new brigade. This development has become increasingly common that the novelty has now worn off. And makeshift kitchens and marquees on rooftops are not the ideal places for cooking and eating.

But John Campbell’s “Pop Up at the Pass”, from 21st to 23rd June, was something new and really special. Firstly the venue: The Pass Restaurant in The South Lodge Hotel, owned by Danny Pecorelli and part of the Exclusive Hotel Group, provided a unique setting. With 22 covers on 11 tables – far more than any other restaurant offering a chef’s table – clients could enjoy a “dramatic dining experience.” Secondly, the assistance of the brigade of Matt Gillan, a Michelin starred chef in his own right, as well as those of loyal followers such as Olly Rouse, created a powerful, enthusiastic team cooking in a proper restaurant kitchen. Thirdly, the tasting menus offered the six services for lunch and dinner had never been served before – a real gamble but the sign of a confident chef at the top of his game.

Since leaving Coworth Park in Ascot, Michelin starred chef John Campbell has continued to develop and refine his cuisine. His seemingly inexhaustible energy and gastronomic imagination, coupled with a real understanding of the science of food, has led to a never ending quest for the perfect balance in every dish he creates. To help him in this task, and to make critical appreciation of his food more analytical, he has devised an ingenious circular chart of taste, smell, temperature and texture, juxtaposing similar and opposing elements. For instance, tastes range from sweet to sharp, smells from spice to burnt, textures from rubbery to woody and temperatures from warm to cool. With meticulous attention to detail, and in collaboration with his team, John Campbell was constantly tasting and adjusting the components of a dish to achieve the optimum balance, sometimes just minutes before service.

The seven course tasting menu revealed the breadth and depth of his achievement to date. Menu descriptions often understated the complexity of the dishes.

Seared – ceviche scallop, coconut water, ice salad, black salt

A single scallop had been briefly seared to give colour and flavour. The ceviche marinade featured the citral and floral notes of lime and coriander were balanced by the oily nuttiness and warmth of the coconut water and ginger. The subtlety of this mixture enhanced the dish, allowing the pure, clean taste of the seafood to shine through. Black salt crystals added both texture and enhanced the flavour of the other components. Wine: Chardonnay / Viognier, Botalura, 2009, Maule Valley, Chile

John Campbell Ppop up Scallop

Duck leg brawn, presse of its liver, crispy tongue and acid turnip

The delicious disc of confit brawn simply melted in the mouth, whilst the liver presse had a characteristic foie gras taste and texture that gave a luxurious mouth feel. Texture was added by the crisp coating of the deep fried tongue, whilst fig flesh and acidulated turnip gave sweet and sour notes that balanced the rich oiliness of the duck.  Wine: Gewurtztraminer, Turckheim, 2010, Alsace, France

John Campbell Pop Up Duck

Celery cooked quinoa, ash baked celeriac, walnuts and parmesan ice cream

Anyone who can make quinoa interesting deserves praise. But this highly accomplished vegetarian dish raised it to ethereal heights. The grain benefitted from being cooked in celery stock and matched with several harmonious elements. Girolles gave an earthiness, celeriac added a nutty note, whilst the rich oiliness of the parmesan ice cream was balanced by the sharp, citral notes of apple and cider vinegar.

 John Campbell Pop up Quinoa

Braised pork cheek, courgette and basil, smoked pineapple

This meat course was a triumph of sous vide cooking, the glazed cheek being unctuously soft and melting, with a rich jus enriched by ginger beer. The pineapple worked well with the meat, adding sweetness and smoky notes. A brilliantly smooth puree of courgette and basil, enhanced with the floral notes of mint, acted as a counterpoint to the nutty texture of samphire. This was another visually attractive dish, the hoop of potato strips giving height and crispness.  Wine: Cornas, Les Cahailles, 2004, Rhone, France.

John Campbell Pop up Pork

Lancashire cheese, Eccles fruit cake, sweet and sour aubergine

This playful dish dealt successfully with the transition from savoury to sweet courses. Following the traditional match of the most famous pastry from Lancashire with its celebrated cheese – in this case the mature Bomb covered in black wax – these components, yeasty, rich, oily and nutty were balanced by sharpness of sweet and sour aubergine and the spicy warm of the mizuna leaf.

 John Campbell Pop up Lancashire Cheese

Lemon yoghurt, wasabi meringue, malt oats

This dessert was a masterclass in matching familiar and unusual ingredients to produce a stellar dessert both in taste and appearance. Malted oats proved a yeasty foil to the sharp citral notes of lemon yogurt and jelly, whilst wasabi meringues added an interesting gentle, spicy element.  Wine: Riesling, Jordan Mellifera, 2010, Stellenbosch, S Africa.

John Campbell Pop up Lemon

Spruce infused parfait, lemon do-nut and curd.

The last dish saw the rich chocolate parfait delicately infused (thankfully!) with Douglas fir and given a citral balance with lemon curd made with olive oil.

John Campbell Pop up Chocolate

Overall, this menu was a stunning tour de force of invention tempered by a sensitive approach to the combination of ingredients, all of which married well in each dish. That this is was the first time these dishes were served makes it all the more remarkable. As one ex Michelin inspector who was present remarked of John Campbell’s sabbatical, he is too talented to remain out of his chef’s whites. Let us all hope that he opens his new restaurant soon!

“Slow Food Week”, L’Anima Restaurant, June 2012

Posted on: June 24th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Slow Food Chef's Alliance Members: Giorgio Locatelli, Francesco Mazzei and Angela Hartnett


Francesco Mazzei, Giorgio Locatelli and Angela Hartnett hosted a dinner at L’Anima in the City to highlight the Chef Alliance, a major development of the Slow Food Movement. How fitting that a trio of leading Italian chefs should be at the forefront of the London events of Slow Food Week, 18th to 24th June, 2012, given the origins of the Slow Food Movement.

Founded in the 1980s in Italy – a country deeply proud of its regional food traditions – to counter the horrors of Fast Food, it has now taken root in 150 countries, with the aim to highlight the “pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and environment.”  This entails promoting awareness, via educational, charitable and culinary activities, of the origins and production of food, with a emphasis on locality, sustainability and nutritional value.

A variety of sub groups encourage those of different ages and backgrounds to engage in the process.  For example, Slow Food Kids urges the use of all five senses in the exploration and enjoyment of food, whilst Slow Food on Campus aims to get students to play a leading role in the development of the food system. Forgotten Foods aims to preserve the endangered heritage of traditional dishes

The restaurant world has also been actively engaged, as witnessed by the Chef’s Alliance which now numbers 53. Amongst those championing forgotten food and slow food menus are Richard Corrigan at Corrigan’s Mayfair, Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley and Gilbert Scott, and Anna Hansen at the Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell. Restaurants of distinction in Bristol, Devon, North Yorkshire, Edinburgh and Wales, including Ynyshire Hall, are also represented. The 2012 Taste of London in Regent’s Park, 23rd and 24th June, also featured a Slow Food UK Secret Garden.  With such a distinguished following, the movement can only go from strength to strength.

The reception at L’Anima saw each of the three chefs give a passionate speech about their dedication to the principles of the Slow Food Movement. Together they created a menu which showcased the virtues of Slow Food both in their choice of ingredients and cooking techniques. The dishes were accompanied by Felluga Wines from North East Italy, all produced with an ecologically sustainable approach to viticulture.

Canapes featured crostini of beautifully roasted sweet baby vine tomatoes. These were paired with Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio 2011

First Course: Risotto carnaroli with roasted quail and grana padano riserva.

This was made with the “king of rice,” native to the Vercelli district in northern Italy, and traditionally used to make risotto. Firmer in texture and higher in starch than Arborio rice, it to keep its shape in the slow cooking, and gives a richer creaminess to the finished dish. Cooked with one of Italy’s most popular cheeses, which is aged for at least 20 months, the delicate taste and sweet nutty intense flavour lifted the risotto to ethereal heights. The succulent, flavoursome breast of quail garnish complemented the rice perfectly.  (Wine: Abbazia di Rosazzo Rosazzo Bianco 2009)

Slow Food Risotto

 Main Course: Portland Hogget lamb with wild garlic mash and minted artichokes and peas

The use of English hogget in preference to the more tender but less interesting milk fed Pyrennean lamb, or similar breeds, was much appreciated, and more akin to slow food traditions. With its firmer texture, good covering of fat and deeper flavour, the meat was deliciously succulent. Mashed potato flavoured and coloured with wild garlic, minted artichokes and fresh peas comprised well prepared seasonal garnishes, whilst a rich lamb jus bought the whole dish together.  (Wine: Livio Felluga Vertigo 2010)

Slow Food Hoggett

Dessert: Wood oven roasted spiced pineapple with salted caramel gelato

This dish emphasised both a traditional cooking technique and traditional Italian skill in producing artisan ice creams. The roasted sweet pineapple had an enhanced aromatic quality which worked well with the velvety smooth salted caramel gelato sprinkled with pistachios. (Wine: Livio Felluga Picolit 2006)

Clearly, this was an inspired menu with which to begin Slow Food Week. It is important to remember in this context that many chefs, including some who have not formally joined the Alliance, have been following the principles of Slow Food for some time, and that Slow Food Week, whilst not totally innovative, aims to raise awareness to a higher level.

Interview: Phil Howard & Rebecca Mascarenhas (2012)

Posted on: June 15th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Phil Howard & Rebecca Mascarenhas

Phil Howard & Rebecca Mascarenhas at Sonny's Kitchen in Barnes


Phil Howard (See Chef Interview) is a chef’s chef with long established top end restaurant multi-Michelin starred success under his belt at The Square.  Phil has also invested in others – witness the rise of The Ledbury (see Brett Graham Interview).  Together with business partner Rebecca Mascarenhas (above), Kicthen W8 in Kensington and now Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes are two joint ventures that are proving that understanding the recipe of your target market while combining skills into the perfect blend, are key factors when delivering success in the tricky restaurant business.

Here, Phil and Rebecca speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide,  interview took place in late May at Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes.

Rebecca, tell us some background about yourself?

Rebecca Mascarenhas: Many years ago I trained as an actress and was reasonably successful, but that profession wasn’t for me, it didn’t suit my temperament:  I don’t like to wait to get a response, as an actress you have to audition and they may or may not want you, my personality is more suited to being a doer, an entrepreneur.

When I stopped I was unemployed so started waitressing, which was my first foray into the restaurant world.  I was working at the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, which I loved, although I was still thinking of it as a temporary job while considering my options for the future.  After about a year Bob Payton, who I worked for, encouraged me to do a management training programme.  This served to further whet my appetite for the industry and I realised that I was really interested in food as a potential career.

I then worked for Victor Lownes (of Playboy empire fame), who had set up a restaurant, as his restaurant manager, however due to (in hindsight serendipitous) circumstances I soon found myself effectively running the business, which was both a challenge and an opportunity.  The business turned around from loss making to extremely profitable.  In all honesty, the only reason I left was that I asked for an equity share, which was not forthcoming.  I had always had an instinct to run my own business so in 1985 I drew up criteria for what I wanted in a restaurant of my own.

In 1986, I was at an estate agents one day and saw this property (Sonny’s) come up. I made them bring me over to view it immediately.  I fell in love with the place and put an offer in straight away.

What has Sonny’s meant to you over the last 26 years?

Rebecca Mascarenhas: Well it has witnessed the span of the best part of my life, I’ve had children while owning the restaurant,  I’ve got to know a wonderful neighbourhood in Barnes and met some fantastic people. This restaurant has meant, and continues to mean, so much to me and I’m very grateful for the experience.

What has Sonny’s meant to this neighbourhood?

Phil Howard: Well I’ve lived in Barnes for ten years.  Barnes is an area that is perhaps stronger than the term neigbourhood; it is very much a community, enclosed by a lovely loop in the river Thames and an attractive area for a whole variety of reasons.

The village nature of Barnes is very important to the people who live here and Sonny’s has a centre of gravity about it – a jewel in the crown of the village.  Many people who lead ambitious, perhaps corporate lives, need a local peace haven where they can switch off the pressure valve, relax and enjoy themselves.

It has been pitched perfectly for where it is and who it is feeding over a long period of time: You are served by an eclectic, normal, relaxed and friendly group of front of house staff and eat the kind of food that allows the customer to just unwind.  On the whole it’s not food you have to think too much about, although those words do not do justice to the eating experience.  In general the restaurant has been and continues to be an important part of the Barnes jigsaw.

How did your association together begin and what are the attributes of a successful business partnership?

Rebecca Mascarenhas:  I phoned Phil up one day, out of the blue, to discuss the possibly of a different take on a quality restaurant (that turned out to be Kitchen W8).

Perhaps top end (Michelin standard) chefs go through a kind of journey; always striving to stretch themselves to find perfection, then when reaching a certain point, perhaps step back and ask themselves where and what would they like to eat when they dine out?  As a result new horizons and opportunities arise.

Phil Howard: We all have ambitions – to achieve objectives in our careers in whatever way our talent and drive is geared; we also develop and mature as chefs and as people at the same time.  At some point everything comes together and you reach a level of satisfaction in your goals, perhaps also as you get older and wiser you realize there are many ways of gaining fulfillment in cooking while running a successful business.

The challenge is to find the right opportunities for new ventures.  I’ve reached the stage in my life where I appreciate that what some might call simpler food (compared to The Square for example) warrants just as much love and care in the cooking.  A part of my role at Sonny’s Kitchen is communicating that message effectively to motivate and manage ambitious young chefs appropriately.

Rebecca Mascarenhas:  In terms of the overall attributes of a strong and successful business partnership, having the right blend or chemistry is fundamental.  It’s like a good marriage: Do you get on well? Do you add value to the partnership in different ways? Do you grow as a team? Do you share mutual respect? Do you share the same values? And so on.  Now that we’re working on Sonny’s Kitchen, we have had the benefit of a great history as a business partnership (with Kitchen W8) and know that we work very well together.  This breeds mutual confidence moving forward.

As an example of the business side of the venture, over the last 26 years the human resources aspects of the restaurant trade have become so much more complicated; a welter of legislation has come through that needs dealing with on a day to day basis.  In fact the gamut of responsibilities for a restaurateur today are quite breathtaking.

Phil Howard:  Yes, I’ve always found the notion of chef/patron a puzzling one – how a chef can deal with the coal face of a kitchen and front of house day to day while managing to run a business has appeared the impossible challenge.  Why should either the chef or the restaurateur have the skill sets to do both?  It’s ideal for two different people with different abilities to come to the table (so to speak).  I find it ideal to work with someone where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; someone like Rebecca who compliments and adds value to what I can do and vice versa.

Rebecca Mascarenhas: We also have mutually valuable address books that come with know-how and experience.  On each side of the operation, one or other of us can nearly always say “I know someone who can!”

What first attracted you to the proposition of Sonny’s Kitchen?

Phil Howard: As a centre point of the village, Sonny’s has always had a personality, a soul and a thumping heartbeat; the challenge of protecting and preserving that while taking the restaurant forward is very exciting.

What first attracted you to the proposition of Kitchen W8?

Rebecca Mascarenhas: Well I originally had the site but was humble enough to realize that the end product was missing something and could be improved.  Phil and I sat down and wrote separate plans for the property and then overlaid them.  Almost word for word we were in harmony and produced a blueprint for the way forward.

Phil brought Mark Kempson into the restaurant and he has made it his own, having breathed new life into the soul of the restaurant.  It’s an ephemeral but palpable thing but I believe wholeheartedly that a restaurant has a soul that just feels right the moment you walk in and we’re blessed to have that with Kitchen W8 and (here) at Sonny’s Kitchen, too.

What does Sonny’s Kitchen have to offer as a food destination and a social meeting place?

Phil Howard: It’s great to be able to fulfill people’s needs on more than one level: To be the place round the corner that customers can enjoy on a weekday lunch time through to the special occasion evening for diners.  I feel particularly exposed and personally responsible for the offering here as the majority of customers are people that I meet in the street – it’s where I live – whereas at The Square you might feel slightly anonymous at ten paces (laughing).

Ultimately, in this day and age, if you do something well enough people will travel to dine at your restaurant. However first and foremost, the aim of the repertoire, is to suit the environment with something we both believe in and if we believe in it, we trust the customers will do, too.

Rebecca Mascarenhas: I would add that the definition of excellence has changed in recent years: Years ago, you knew what excellent was and now excellence is pitched at many different levels with each being equally relevant and effective.

We’re now managing people’s expectations as to what to expect from Sonny’s Kitchen – the ethos will be the same – we’re sensitive to many years of loyal clientele and easing them into the refreshed offering, at the same time as broadening the scope of opportunity for new clientele to enjoy what Sonny’s Kitchen is all about!

Gilpin Lodge, Hotel Review, Lake District (June 2012)

Posted on: June 11th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

 Gilpin Lodge Exterior

At first sight, Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel might not seem the ideal place for a Lake District luxury break. Located on the Crook Road above Windermere, it lacks views of Cumbria’s biggest lake. There is no on site spa, almost a sine qua non for success at this level. Being two miles into the countryside may be too far for those who wish to explore town as well as rural landscapes. Its 20 acres of grounds are mainly rolling craggy hillsides and woodland rather than manicured lawns and gardens. And the modest exterior of the 1901 original house is not as imposing as others in the area.

All these have not disadvantaged Gilpin Lodge in the slightest, as its many accolades testify: It currently holds four red stars for its hotel and three AA Rosettes for its restaurant and remains a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux Association; The AA crowned it England Hotel of the Year for 2011-12;  and it was voted Small Hotel of the Year in the English Tourist Board Awards for Excellence.

Indeed, Gilpin Lodge has made a virtue of its supposed weaknesses, creating a truly memorable experience for its guests. It provides in abundance the Relais & Chateaux mantra of five “Cs”: courtesy, charm, character, calm and cuisine. The unrivalled quality of its accommodation and public rooms, together with its reputation for fine dining, compensate for the absence of panoramic views. For those who insist on a lake view and spa facilities, there is now the option of booking one of the six suites at the Lake House, with its own private lake, pool and sauna. Alternatively, complimentary access to the Old England Hotel Spa leisure facilities on Lake Windermere is available to those staying in the main house, where they can also benefit from in room spa treatments. Nor are more physical leisure pursuits ignored as the hotel has arrangements with nearby providers of golf, pony trekking, horse riding, mountain biking and fishing.

Gilpin Lodge’s small domestic scale, as suggested by its symmetrical gabled facade, is the secret of its success. It is the quality, not the quantity of the hotel’s expansion that so impresses. From a small bed and breakfast in 1987, owners John and Christine Cunliffe have transformed Gilpin into an exquisite country house hotel of just 20 rooms and suites, with six more luxury suites in the Lake House. They have given ample scope to their two sons Barney and Ben to oversee and develop Gilpin. Barney manages the Hotel whilst his wife Zoë runs the Lake House (opened in 2010).  Architect Ben designed the new kitchen, Garden Room, the spectacular garden suites, the Champagne Bar and Gardens, and the conservatory as well as the new rooms at the Lake House. Christine, working with designers, is responsible for the interior design – no mean task given the constant expansion and refurbishment.  Essentially a family run operation, with a wealth of experience in the hospitality industry, Gilpin Lodge offers a degree of team work and personal service unmatched by its rivals.  In keeping with this ethos, the hotel’s website must be unique in its comprehensive coverage of every aspect of hotel life, including detailed descriptions of each room and suite.

Barney & Zoë Cunliffe

Barney & Zoë Cunliffe


Barney Cunliffe is the imposing figure seen hosting breakfast and weekday dinner at the main house. Apart from strategic planning, administration and numerous meetings, his contribution to the day to day running of the hotel is very much a personal one, meeting guests, taking a genuine interest in what they have to say, and offering assistance when needed. Having mentioned at dinner I needed directions to the Blacksmith’s Arms at Broughton Mills, I was supplied at breakfast the following morning with a print out of my destination, a large scale map, and further advice on a route to Lake Wastwater. This typifies the tireless service and meticulous attention to detail that make an excellent host.

At interview, Barney was keen to stress the very hands on nature of his management philosophy. In this way, guests are treated to a very individual style of service. “To make each couple leave with a special memory” is his mission statement. As the hotel does not accept bookings for weddings or conferences, he and his staff have every opportunity to get to know guests personally, quickly assessing whether a formal or more relaxed form of service would be suitable. Accommodating their preferences in a professional way is paramount and, given the high rate of return visits, this is greatly appreciated. And, just as staff quickly get to know the guests, so I found myself warming to them, including remembering their names – a major achievement for me: Tim, the restaurant manager, exemplified the balance between formality and warm friendliness; Suzi and Adam who served at table chatted and joked in the relaxed atmosphere they helped to create; and Ziggi, the sommelier, spoke engagingly about his wine cellar.

Barney’s style of personnel management is equally flexible, allowing room for individual development.  Whilst observing occasional weaknesses in service, he prefers a quiet word afterwards to immediate intervention. This approach pays dividends in terms of staff retention and he is rightly proud of his long serving, dedicated team; for example, Sarah, his House Manager, has been at Gilpin Lodge for 20 years.

Gilpin Lodge’s success in the competitive market of Lake District luxury country house hotels has meant there is little seasonal change in demand. The recession, Barney explained, has not significantly affected trade. Excluding January, occupancy rates range from 65% in February to 80-85% at its highest. Recently, the peak season has moved from autumn to summer, with the rise in international visitors clearly noticeable. Although many regulars come from Yorkshire and Lancashire, there is no significant geographical pattern in guest origin; thus, Gilpin Lodge’s reputation attracts guests from across the UK.

Whilst many would say Gilpin Lodge has already achieved perfection, Barney is keen to move the hotel even further forward: improving the reception area, tweaking accommodation in the main house (with each suite having its own conservatory), and adding spa treatment rooms to the Lake House are amongst possible future developments.

The public rooms, with different origins, various shapes and sizes, and contrasting décor, merge into a harmonious whole.

The spacious lounge features a magnificent open shelf display and bookcase. Decorated and furnished in shades of brown, yellow and white, it oozes luxury and sophistication.  A variety of clubby armchairs and settees, in a range of sumptuous materials, offer guests an ideal place to relax.  Large mirrors add to the sense of space and clever wall, table and ceiling lighting give an inviting feel at night.  In winter, the built in fire provides a warm cosiness, whilst all year round, the room is ideal for pre dinner drinks and post dinner coffee.

Gilpin Lounge

Leading off the lounge is the latest addition, the ultra modern Champagne Bar. Especially popular in summer, this stunning terracotta and beige room features contemporary spotlighting, red bucket armchairs, designer bar stools and a walk in wine cellar, in which guests are free to peruse the 250 bins. The outside multi level terrace, punctuated by ponds and raised beds, provides another space for relaxation, especially at night when mood lighting adds a soft, enticing glow.

Gilpin Lodge Bar

The four dining rooms, served by the same kitchen, all have well spaced tables dressed in fine napery.  Otherwise, they could not be more different. Indeed, many returning guests have their favourite tables in their favourite rooms.

Gilpin Garden Room

The original Dining Room has a classic Georgian look with oak chairs, chest of drawers and grandfather clock. The Morning Room at the front of the house benefits from a large bay window and has a more feminine quality with its high backed upholstered chairs. The Conservatory, a modern glass roofed extension decorated in orange, has a light, airy feel and faces a small enclosed garden with water features.  Its hidden, cosy corners, give it a more intimate feel. Most recent of all is the Garden Room designed by Ben Cunliffe. This themed room, with its floral décor, indoor plants, flowers and branch like wall lights and chandeliers, has wall to wall patio doors which bathe the room in light all year round. For diners, the most attractive feature may well be the supremely comfortable low backed armchairs, upholstered in corduroy style material, which help to make eating here a joy.

Gilpin Lodge offers 20 main house rooms in ascending categories of luxury: Classic and Master rooms and Junior and Garden suites. All are individually named and designed. The six garden suites, located on highest part of the site, have feature fireplaces and walk in dressing areas, and private gardens and decking, floodlit at night. A major selling point is their sunken cedar wood hot tubs. This facility, Barney tells me, has proved popular not only with young couples, but with older ones too.

The Kentmere junior suite in which I stayed offered spacious, attractive accommodation with two aspects, one with French windows opening onto its own furnished terrace by the garden. The beige and cream oriental design wallpaper was complemented by a lacquered Chinese set of drawers, chest and coffee table.  A large two seater settee facing a digital flat screen television and DVD player offered added comfort.  Ample reading matter, fresh milk in the mini bar, tea and coffee making facilities, home made biscuits and a flask of iced water showed pleasing attention to detail. Guest information was comprehensive, including the origin of the room names; Kentmere, I discovered, comes from “a hidden valley past Staveley, whence the Gilpin family (originally spelt de Gylpin) came.” The luxurious bathroom featured double sinks, a walk-in shower and a Jacuzzi bath. Mouton Brown toiletries and the fluffiest towels I have ever used added to the indulgent experience of using the room. Being serviced twice a day, the rooms were kept spotless and tidy.

Gilpin Lodge Kentmere

Although I did not stay there, special mention must be made of the Lake House, a mile from the main hotel.  Zoë Cunliffe was kind enough to give me a tour: In effect a boutique hotel in an oasis of calm, its six suites are luxuriously appointed and overlook Knipe Tarn, its own private lake. Downstairs, the open plan lounge and conservatory – which also serves as a breakfast room – offer ample space to unwind.  Whilst buffet breakfast and afternoon tea are taken in the Lake House, guests are chauffeured to and from the hotel for dinner.

From beginning to end, staying at Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel was a real joy. The luxurious accommodation, excellent facilities and seamless personal service all made for a memorable stay. Little wonder guests are sad to leave but eager to return.

Gilpin Lodge, Lake District, Restaurant Review (June 2012)

Posted on: June 11th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Chef Phil Cubin

Head Chef Phil Cubin

At 24, head chef Phil Cubin’s youthful looks belie his considerable experience in the kitchens of renowned restaurants such as Sharrow Bay and Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. After three years as Gilpin Lodge’s sous chef, he recently succeeded Russell Plowman, one of his key mentors. Phil’s gentle temperament, open personality and modest character make him instantly likeable, and are reflected in his calm regime in the kitchen. This is built on a highly organised approach to his brigade, with detailed guidelines to ensure consistency of execution. His team of seven is nevertheless given ample room for personal development, whilst contributing to the success of the kitchen as a whole. For instance, the recently completed Spring Menu, with six choices in each of the three courses, is the result of a long series of tastings involving his whole brigade and the front of house team. Certainly, Phil is anxious to develop the strengths of those in his charge, while their passion and willingness to learn remain strong.

Keen to stamp his own identity on the cooking, Phil’s style reflects a more natural than scientific approach. Appreciating the high quality of seasonal produce – including foraged ones – in the Lake District, his dishes exemplify the respect and sensitivity with which they are treated. Often inspired by the prime quality and beauty of a single ingredient, his preparation and mainly classical cooking techniques, along with careful selection of garnishes, are designed to highlight the freshness and flavour of the star element. Over elaboration, he understands, will not achieve this end.

In autumn and winter, grouse, hare and venison have proved to be popular choices. Although it is still early days, spider crab, salt cod and lamb dishes on the new spring menu have proved equally popular. In addition to his five course Gourmet Menu, Phil has recently introduced a three course Simply Grill menu featuring pork rillettes, cote de beouf and crème brulee.

Fine Dining Guide had two opportunities to sample Phil’s five course menu, finding much to admire in the restrained innovation, precise cooking, clean tastes, fine balance of tastes and textures, and elegant presentation.  Over pre-prandial drinks in the lounge, different canapes were offered each night: black pudding bonbons, cheese straws, smoked salmon with crème fraiche on first, haddock goujons, aubergine mousse and olive straws on the second. Well executed, these were light, flavoursome mouthfuls.

Of the two three types of breads offered, rosemary focaccia, was outstanding in its moist crumb and crisp, fragrant crust.

A delightful amuse bouche comprised crispy, well seasoned ham hock, tangy home made piccalilli and soft boiled quail egg.

Gilpin Ham Hock

Another, a velvety cauliflower veloute, given added texture and flavour with thinly sliced florets and diced bacon, elevated this potentially bland vegetable to gastronomic heights.

Amongst first courses, a new take on a classic featured warm salt cod brandade deep fried in a crisp batter. Pickled vegetables cut the rich savoury elements of the fish whilst saffron aioli and parsley puree served as two contrasting sauces.  (Wine: Fuentemilano Verdejo-Viura, Castilla y Leon, Spain)

Seared foie gras was well timed to produce a caramelised crust and melting interior. Accompanied by ethereally light watercress tempura, baby watercress, crispy chicken skin shards and a sauce of beetroot juices, this was a brilliantly conceived and well executed dish.  (Wine: Terra de Asorei Alborino, Rias Baixas, Spain)

Gilpin Foie Gras

A starter of cold lobster had been well timed to retain is succulence and sweetness. Served with a simple salad of cucumber, tomato and fennel, the crustacean was allowed to take centre stage.

Gilpin Lobster

Phil’s signature main course proved to be a truly innovative triumph of tastes, textures, flavours and colours. Plump, west coast Scottish langoustines, wrapped in lardo di colonatta to protect their delicate texture and enhance their wonderfully fresh taste, were gently pan fried to give colour and extra flavour. This inspired technique was both simple yet skilled. Deeply flavoured squid ink risotto, seasoned with a small amount of parmesan, provided the base of the dish, whilst maple gel enlivened without overwhelming in its sweetness. Crisp wild leeks, dressed with chive oil, completed this accomplished dish.  (Wine: Classic rose 2011, Chateau Massaya, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)

Gilpin Langoustine

Another main course of Cumbrian beef demonstrated the excellence of classical meat cookery.  A tender, medium rare fillet, paired with slow cooked unctuously rich ox cheek, was garnished with creamy potato puree spiked with horseradish and sweet confit shallots. These elements were bought together by a dark, well reduced red wine sauce.  (Wine: Chianti Classico 2008, Isole e Olena, Tuscany, Italy)

Gilpin Beef

A breast of Goosnargh duckling – the most flavoursome of all breeds – was roasted to a pleasing medium with crisp skin. Thankfully it was not sliced. (Why many chefs insist on slicing duck breast, as if diners are incapable of doing it themselves, remains a mystery, especially as juices are lost and the dish gets cold more quickly.) Having said this, steak knives would have been appreciated, not because the duck was tough, but rather than the knife should glide through the thick breast as it would through butter. Golden beetroot, honeyed baby onions and fragrant garlic flowers were simple yet effective garnishes.  (Wine: Domaine de Mortier 2009, Saint Nicholas de Bourgueil, Loire Valley, France.)

Gilpin Duck

Rack of spring Cumbrian lamb was slow roasted and rightly served with its full compliment of fat. This rich, sweet meat, served medium rare to maximise its flavour, was appropriately garnished with wild garlic leaves and flowers, braised piquant Jerusalem artichokes – an unusual yet satisfying garnish – and a light jus.  (Wine: Sierra Cantabria 2007, San Vincente de la Sonsierra, Rioja, Spain)

Dinners at Gilpin Lodge always feature pre-desserts. The raspberry and orange flavoured granites, with their foam/ cream toppings, sampled on successive evenings, served their purpose in being palate cleansing and refreshing,

Desserts often allow for greater invention and creativity, this being no less true at Gilpin Lodge.

The most outstanding option saw strawberries treated three ways: macerated, jellied and powered. These were partnered with a red pepper sorbet of superb texture and flavour, and an intense basil jus. Shards of meringue added a crisp lightness. The overall balance of sweet and savoury flavours, soft and crisp textures, and light and dark colours made this dessert a tour de force of invention.  Served on dark slate, it was also visually stunning. (Wine: Boizel Brut rose NV, Evelyne Roques-Boizel, Epernay, Champagne, France)

Gilpin Strawberry

Another accomplished dessert was moist cherry cake, sauced with an intense cherry gel. It came with a tangy yogurt sorbet, powdered pistachio and buttermilk. (Wine: Elysium Black Muscat 2010, Andrew Quady, Madera, California, USA)

Gilpin Cherry Cake

White chocolate and mascarpone had a light cheesecake texture. Garnished with pineapple poached in syrup flavoured with fennel and anise, and topped with a sugar ribbon, this was another indulgent dessert. (Wine: Domaine Rotier 2008, Renaissance, Gaillac, France)

Gilpin White Chocolate

Another innovative dessert featured a rich and well textured quennel of spiced palm sugar mousse set on a slice of gingerbread and garnished with fresh lychees and fragrant star anise powder. The dish may have benefitted from the absence of a grapefruit foam, which merely distracted from the other elements.  (Chateau La Veriere 2007, Coteaux du Layon, Loire Valley, France)

Gilpin Sugar

Strong coffee and well made petit fours – macaroons sand chocolate truffles – provided good endings to memorable meals. These were made more enjoyable by the excellent service which was friendly, solicitous and well informed.  Sommelier Ziggy Grinsbergs expertly selected wines to match each dish. It took over six tasting sessions, liaising with the chef, to finalise the flight of often lesser known bins.

Clearly, Phil Cubin is a rising star in the ultra competitive world of Lake District dining. He admits he aims to have firmly established himself at Gilpin Lodge over the next five years having further developed his own distinct style. From the evidence gained so far, he has impressed with his first spring menu and is well on the way to establishing is own reputation. We will watch his career with interest.

Artichoke, Amersham, Restaurant Review (June 2012)

Posted on: June 10th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

In 1973, when John Betjamin made his documentary about Metroland, the semi rural commuter belt to the north west of the capital, fine dining in the UK was in its infancy. Amersham, with its attractive old town and modern housing and shopping developments, typified the economic and social attractions and slower pace of life that many found appealing.  Like many other towns in the area, however, it lacked a restaurant of true distinction. Those in search of a gastronomic experience would still travel to London. Now, almost 40 years later, the Metropolitan line and the improved road network are helping to bring Londoners and those from further afield to dine at a restaurant that can easily compete with many in the capital.

Chef patron Laurie Gear modestly describes Artichoke as a “successful neighbourhood restaurant”, but this is to underrate his own achievement. Whilst it does retain a strong local following built up since it opened in 2002, Artichoke’s reputation has been nationally recognised with a host of awards, the most recent being placed 37th in the Top 50 UK Restaurants Good Food Guide 2012. A year earlier, the same guide crowned it the Best New Entry whilst the Michelin Guide named it a Rising Star.

To describe Artichoke as a phoenix risen from the ashes would be appropriate both in terms of its reopening and rejuvenated cuisine. The fire of 2008, which almost destroyed the interior and six years’ of hard work, led to an 18 month closure. With its reopening in 2009 and subsequent expansion into the fish restaurant where the fire started, Artichoke has doubled its covers to 45, with an additional 15/16 in the private dining room.

The décor and furnishings successfully harmonise the original features of the 16th century building – sash windows, fireplace, oak beams and low ceilings – with stylish modern additions such as exposed painted brickwork and clever spotlighting. Particularly impressive is the glass partition through which diners can view the chefs at work in the open kitchen. Polished dark wood tables are well spaced in the three seating areas – kitchen, garden (in the original room) and private dining (upstairs). Leather upholstered chairs and banquettes provide sophisticated, relaxed seating.

The fire of 2008 might also be seen as a blessing in disguise by allowing – forgive the pun -Laurie’s cooking to move up a gear. Although he developed his classical skills in the kitchens of variety of establishments including a fish restaurant, a top end country house hotel and a gastropub, Laurie’s epiphany came with his experience during the closure at the celebrated Danish restaurant, Noma. Its emphasis on freshness, locality, seasonality and sustainability, with the use of foraged ingredients and employing the latest modern techniques, injected new life into the food served at Artichoke. Not that Laurie’s modern European cuisine has lost its own identity, rather the influences are employed in moderation and in suitable collaboration with a classical repertoire. Molecular techniques are noticeable by their relative absence.

Precise technical skills, consistently applied and combined with imaginative but not outlandish creativity have produced elegantly presented dishes which maximise flavour and balance tastes and textures. The main ingredient takes centre stage, so plates are pleasingly free from extraneous garnishes, each accompaniment contributing harmoniously to the composite whole.

An ambitious menu structure offers both a la carte and tasting options for lunch and dinner. At lunch the three course set menu at £25 is justifiably popular whilst the five course lunch tasting menu for £35 (with a flight of wines for £18) must surely rank as an outstanding bargain in any top end restaurant.

Fine Dining Guide visited Artichoke on a Tuesday evening in May and found plenty to admire in the dishes sampled.

Much can be ascertained about a restaurant by the quality of its bread and the two offered here were not found wanting.  A sourdough made with Mackeson stout had a crisp crust and firm textured crumb. Equally appealing was the bacon brioche which was rich, buttery and crumbly.

An amuse bouche featured a shot of warm beetroot soup gently acidulated with apple juice and spiked by a cold horseradish cream. This served its purpose of stimulating the taste buds well.

A signature starter saw beautifully fresh white crab meat from Lyme Bay encased in a delicate tube of passion fruit jelly, a marriage that worked particularly well.  Avocado cream and shellfish mayonnaise added richer elements, whilst the whole dish was lifted by a quennel of cucumber sorbet, and slices of frozen cucumber, which had cleansing, crisp qualities. This was an inspired starter, with its carefully judged combination of tastes, textures and – with the addition of edible violet flowers – colours. The crisp white wine, with its apple aroma and hint of spice, set off this dish well. (Wine: Pinot Gris, Château Ste Michelle, Columbia Valley, Washington, 2008)

Artichoke Crab

A ballotine of marinated and poached foie gras was satisfyingly dense and melting.  It was offset by a lively grapefruit curd and a chicory marmalade, the gentle bitterness of which balanced the rich creaminess of the liver. A tuile of pain d’espices added a crisp texture which finished this luxurious starter perfectly. The lively sweet white wine, with its citrus and tropical aromas, was a well judged accompaniment. (Wine: Jurançon, Château Jolys, Cuvée Jean, 2009)

Artichoke Foie Gras

Next came dishes which reflected the distinct yet restrained influence of  Noma. – Red wine braised English snails were soft, succulent and highly flavoured. These were set on a savoury “bed” of warm Valencia wet rice, and rye bread crumbs garnished with enoki mushrooms emerging from the “soil.”  Wild garlic leaves added to the “earthiness” – in both senses of the word – of the dish. In flavour, texture and visual appearance, this was a stunningly original dish.

Artichoke Snails

Equally accomplished was an assiette of carrots: steamed baby Heritage carrots which were delicately tender and sweet; carrot tops cooked al dente; and a carrot puree of contrasting smoothness. Balancing these in taste and texture and adding a heady fragrance were truffled goat’s curd – a current favourite amongst leading chefs – black truffle shavings and a Wee Three Pigs Farm fennel salami salad. This was another well conceived, brilliantly executed dish.

Artichoke Carrot/Salad

The two main courses sampled were slightly less innovative but showed equal skill in their combination of ingredients, execution and presentation.

Breast of free range Chiltern duck, cooked pink in the classic French manner, maximised the flavour of the bird. A boudin blanc of the confit leg was well made. The garnishes of this dish were particularly memorable: wafer thin, crisp pomme maxime; an ethereally light foie gras yogurt; earthy morels; a rich jus and an intensely fresh puree of peas, given added texture with whole young peas and pea pods. The red wine, with fresh red fruit aromas and elegant feel matched this dish well. (Wine: Cairanne, Domaine Richaud, 2010)

Artichoke Duck

A “surf and turf” main course featured deliciously succulent and melting slow braised pork belly with its separate puffed skin, deep fried. It worked well with the tangy poached pineapple and puree and baby bulbs of fennel garnish, which added a gentle aniseed touch. Scottish langoustine gave a lively freshness, whilst the whole dish was bought together by a well flavoured jus and a scattering of pollen. The red wine, with blackcurrant, liquorice and spice notes suited this dish well. (Wine: Carménère Equus, Haras de Pirque, Maipo Valley, Chile, 2009)

Artichoke Porkbelly

The strengths of the pastry section, located upstairs in its own kitchen, were amply demonstrated in the two desserts sampled

A rich ganache of piped Michel Cluizel white chocolate was cut by a sharp jelly of Amalfi lemon and olive oil. Lemon Thyme sherbert gave a refreshing herby fragrance whilst shards of Amaretti biscuits added a contrastingly crisp texture to this composite dessert.

Artichoke Chocolate

The second dessert was a veritable masterclass in the art of puff pastry. Marie de bois strawberries and creme patisierre were sandwiched between thin layers of crisp pastry perched on a delectable caramelised white chocolate cream. The accompanying strawberry sorbet was of perfect texture and flavour. Visually stunning, this dessert tasted as good as it looked.

Artichoke Strawberry

Well made petits fours -tarragon marsh mallow, truffle, cherry and fudge – and good coffee completed this memorable meal.

Service, overseen by Jacqueline Gear, Restaurant Director, was welcoming, knowledgeable and solicitous. Ludo, the Maitre d’, used his considerable expertise in selecting the flight of wines.

Overall, Laurie and Jacqueline Gear have created a restaurant of which they can be justifiably proud, one that operates like a well oiled machine, but with personality and character. Their hard work in overcoming adversity commands our full admiration.  Moreover, they have earned the respect of their fellow chefs such as Raymond Blanc, who actively recommends Artichoke, Prue Leith and Alyn Williams who have made, or will be making guest appearances. Perhaps most importantly for its future development, Artichoke now needs to the Michelin starred recognition it so richly deserves. We await the 2013 guide in eager anticipation.

June 2012: Fine Dining Guide June Newsletter

Posted on: June 4th, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Much has happened since the re-launch of fine dining guide in December 2011.  This, too, was when the site produced its last newsletter.

The iTunes podcast series continues with two new episodes “Britain’s Top 20 Restaurants” and “The Future of Restaurants and Wine” – as always the links are to the written transcripts, you may find the podcast series on iTunes by typing “Restaurant Dining (UK)” into the main iTunes store search box.  Two importants points of note: No longer “Fine Dining in the UK” (the series has been re-named, re-branded and re-launched): For some reason only four old episodes are currently listed as a “summary” the user has to click on the logo to see the full list of available episodes (even clicking on “See all episodes” currently produces only the summary four episodes, so please do click on the logo!)

fine-dining-guide has launched a YouTube Channel for which the site commissioned and uploaded a professional piece on Diego Masciaga of The Waterside Inn preparing the special dish of Canard a la Presse. (Thanks to Pro Motion Media).

The site has conducted five interviews since the last newsletter spanning a hotel group owner, three established chefs and a rising star of the future.

Chefs Interviewed in First Half 2012

Since 2000, the proud holder of two Michelin stars, David Everitt-Matthias gives a full and frank interview about his rise to the top of the profession as well as an insight into the cooking techniques employed in his kitchen.  At the other end of the spectrum, a recent former winner of FutureChef, Luke Thomas, gives his aspirations for the future.  Newly Michelin starred Matt Gillan of The Pass at South Lodge Hotel provides an open, infectious and enthusiastic interview about his cooking passion, including time spent in the Michelin two star kitchens of John Campbell (See Interview) and Daniel Clifford. At The Westbury Hotel, head chef Alyn Williams has spread his wings after years under the watchful eye of Marcus Wareing. Alyn gives an insightful interview regarding his personal background and inspirations in his cooking.

Exclusive Hotels include four luxury properties: Pennyhill Park, Bagshot (See Michael Wignall Interview, Latymer Restaurant Review): South Lodge Hotel, near Horsham, Sussex: Manor House Hotel (See Hotel Review, Bybrook Restaurant Review), Castle Combe, Wiltshire:  Lainston House Hotel, Winchester.  Employing over 700 staff in a £45m turnover business, owner Danny Pecorelli took time out of his relentless schedule for an in-depth interview.

Twitter/Facebook: Both continue to deliver good traffic to the site – @finediningguide has over 3600 followers in June 2012 and the newer facebook page 480 likes.  The new template design page provided by facebook gets a thumbs up from fine-dining-guide.  You may go directly to the site’s pages on twitter or facebook simply by clicking on the ‘f’ and ‘t’ buttons in the top right corner of every page on the site.

Restaurant/Hotel Reviews: Restaurant reviews by Daniel Darwood have included North Road, Mallory Court, Rogan and Company, Tom Aikens, Kitchen Joel Antunes, Savoy River Restaurant, Melton’s, Tom Kitchin and Alyn Williams at the Westbury.  Daniel also reviewed Mallory Court Hotel. (See Reviews)

Opinion/News: The definition of fine dining is changing at a rapid pace – before our very eyes.

Come unto me, all ye that labour in the stomach and I will restore you” wrote Monsieur Boulanger, in 1765, on a sign above his restorative; an establishment that soon became recognized as the first ‘restaurant.’

It has been argued that the French Revolution prompted the start of fine dining restaurants in Europe.  Typically the aristocracy had private chefs, grand kitchens and servants to act as waiters.  It was only this class of people that enjoyed fine dining.  An objective of the revolution was to level out society and a byproduct was a surfeit of unemployed chefs, who had been forced out of their private commissions with wealthy families.

Quite quickly an aspiring class of people were offering a demand to these chefs; they wanted to experience what is was like to dine out in the style of the old aristocracy.  Where demand meets supply we have a market and so the market for independent fine dining restaurants was born.

Brillat-Savarin – the first great epicure – who once famously said ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are’ was an early champion of fine dining and had a great cheese from Normandy named in his honour.  Brillat-Savarin cited the Paris restaurant La Grande Taverne de Loudres and the owner Antoine Beauvilliers (early 1800s), with being the first to combine his four requisites of fine dining: an elegant room, smart waiters, a good cellar and superior cooking.

The market for fine dining in Britain remained far more “conservative” than our French neighbours.  Perhaps right through until the birth of Le Gavroche in London (1967), the emphasis was on grand hotels.  In my early memory of fine dining the chefs you knew about, who were vaguely celebrities, worked in grand hotels.  It was not until the Roux brothers, Koffmann, Ladenis and Blanc appeared that the independent restaurant could be taken seriously as a fine dining destination.

There was a distinct differences between the grand hotel restaurants of London and the independent restaurants: Accessibility.  As late as the 1960s you possibly needed a title or some serious connections to get a table for lunch at a London grand hotel.  Meanwhile independent restaurateurs were delighted to open their doors to whoever could afford to pay.  So in a sense we were witnessing a repeat of the experience of France some 150 years earlier.

The objectives of the food from the modern fine dining restaurant chef are generally to deliver on taste, texture and presentation.  Extraordinary lengths of labour intensive work will go into delivering on these three fronts but as one chef told me last week – “if something has lemon in it, I want it to taste like a box of lemons!”  The techniques used to extract and enhance flavour and to deliver flavour combinations can be quite breathtaking.  With each generation top end restaurant food has also become healthier with far less reliance on cream, butter and large doses of salt.

The fundamental change we have witnessed in recent times is also in terms of the eating environment – the dining room, the service, the ambiance – has seen a shift to informality: There appears to be two distinct, divergent classifications of fine dining restaurant – those that conform to the essence of the original Brillat-Savarin definition contrasted with a large and growing number that reflect the mood of bare minimalist furniture, semi-casual waiters and the idiom that ‘the more the room looks like a converted warehouse the better!’

So what does the future hold?  Trends and cycles tend to correct each other over time, however mix in fashion, culture and economic environment then what fine dining will look like in twenty years is anyone’s best guess.

Until next time, Happy Eating!

Chef Interview: David Everitt-Matthias (June 2012)

Posted on: June 3rd, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Le Champignon Sauvage Brigade

David Everitt-Matthias (Above Far Left) with the brigade from Le Champignon Sauvage


David Everitt-Matthias is a low profile but high powered Michelin two starred chef.  David remains ever present in the kitchen with his small but efficient, effective and talented brigade delivering a consistent level of excellence, service in service out.  David found time to speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, Interview took place at Le Champignon Sauvage restaurant.

Tell us some background about yourself?

My early memories, which have stayed in the back of my mind, were visiting my aunt and especially when we stayed at her mothers’ in Suffolk.  I would have been 7,8 or 9 at the time.  We used to go countryside hedgerow picking, she would make her own wines, which sowed the seeds for an interest in food and an enduring interest in foraged food.

The latter interest took a back seat in 1978; I got my papers through for the army catering corp on the same day as I had an interview to work in the kitchens of The Four Seasons – so I had to decide one or the other and chose The Four Seasons.

There were about ninety chefs in the kitchen, I spent five years there and made my way up to Chef Saucier, which was quite an achievement at a young age.  They had a split shift system and by the end I was exclusively on the early shift as I had developed a system of having all the sauces ready for the evening service as well as sauces and garnishes for the banqueting.  This experience taught me organization and discipline skills, as they were paramount in that environment; you might find a banquet for six hundred happening in the middle of service for the Four Seasons Restaurant (The main hotel restaurant at the time).

Jean Michel Bonin was the French Head chef, who recognized something in me and promoted me accordingly.  I’ve stayed in touch with him from time to time, like when we got the first and second Michelin star and I won chef of the year,  just to say hi and that one of your boys has achieved this – something I think he appreciated.

In around 1981, I did a four week stage at Koffmann’s.  This was a real eye-opener, you were just cooking lunch and dinner service – no breakfasts, afternoon teas, room service, banqueting and so on.  It was food at its purest.  The fact that he could take really humble ingredients and turn them into a gastronomic meal really inspired me and I knew that was the way that I wanted to go in my career.

Moving on from the Four Seasons in 1983, I was head chef at three different restaurants in London – they were three different types of cooking – three different types of business – I wanted to see which type would suit me best; Bistrot/Brasserie, American style or fine dining.  The one where I built my name and found the most inspiring was the thriving and fashionable Fingals on the Fulham Road.  So we (Helen & I) decided that our own business was the way forward.

We started sending off for properties and originally thought the romantic idea of the seaside; going to the beach of an afternoon, relaxing and picking up razor clams. Sadly, that didn’t prove practical in terms of the target market for modern European cuisine.  In the end we found this property (le Champignon Sauvage) in Cheltenham – a restaurant called La Ciboulette was at this site with an ex- Roux chef called Kevin Jenkins who ran it with his wife.  We (Helen & I) sold our flat in London and moved here, we just fell in love with the place.

When we opened the doors here, I was 26 and Helen was 24.  I knew how to run a kitchen but knew a little of how to run a business.  It was a boom time in the mid 1980s so we did very well for a year or so after opening.  Then one of the worst recessions hit us along with interest rates upwards of 12%.  There was a real economic bite and we came very close to going under.  The local and area bank managers met us (in the days when business banking was a personal service), saw our enthusiasm and decided to back us in the business.

As a result of that recession experience we’ve been very careful about expansion; saving and buying rather than going into too much debt.  It took us eighteen years to pull together the funds we needed to buy the next door property, which enabled us to take more covers and do vital expansion work to the kitchen.

When Le Champignon Sauvage started my food cooking style was quite fussy and nouvelle style, I guess I was following the fashion!  I was cooking mainly for what I imagined the guides wanted and as a result I didn’t have any real personal direction.  One day I decided to start cooking for myself which gave me a lot more confidence; if people came through the door they were getting a piece of me, my personal signature and this gave me a much better sense of purpose, greater enjoyment and satisfaction.

The first Michelin star came in 1995, there was a small increase in business, which cemented our position on the map.  At this time the restaurant started to develop the things we have become known for like spicing, foraging and butchery.  Five years later we were awarded the second Michelin star.  That changed everything.  We became very busy and at the time there was only myself and one other in the kitchen.

It came to point where we had achieved everything we could achieve in a tiny kitchen serving a maximum of 28 covers on 9 tables.  I decided to pop next door to see if the picture framers who were there wanted to sell.   They did and the bank agreed.  Whilst we had double the space of restaurant we decided to only add four extra tables and continue to have only one sitting – to give people space to eat in comfort and refinement.  I preferred this idea to the modern city trend of packing people in and turning tables.

Tell us about the kitchen and the brigade.

When we bought next door in 2005 we had a bigger garden so as well as doubling the restaurant size from left to right, we were able to extend out the back.  As a result the kitchen is now about four times the size and I have wonderful range of equipment as well as a bigger brigade.  Its still a thrill to come down every morning and enjoy the new environment, it certainly beats the old six burner I had had for years, with the door held together with tin foil (laughing).

I am lucky to have Matthew Worswick and Mark Stinchcombe as chefs in the kitchen. A wealth of enthusiasm and experience.

We also have Keiron Stevens,  who came to me about three and a half years ago; he was still at school and walked in off the street, well presented in a jacket and tie, and asked if he could do a week in the kitchen.  He then stayed a second week and then worked through holidays after that until we were able to offer him an apprenticeship.  He’s now completed college and been promoted to a second commis with his own section.  It’s a great feeling to nurture enthusiasm and see the stars of the future develop.

Kitchens are so open nowadays, you can generally ring most people up and see if you can get them an opening as a stage.  There has to be a system in place for stages because you get high turnover of them, some may be very good and some not so good.

With the two Michelin stars being recognized not just here but abroad has meant that we get a flow of stages coming here to learn and works out well as a two way learning experience.

How would you say your cooking has evolved?

When we start building dishes we have the building blocks taste, texture and presentation; the latter is probably the area where people have to work least hard to achieve something respectable.  Between the first and second star my personality came much more into the food, a personal signature. Concentration on flavour was also paramount; to get the complete essence of an ingredient – if something had lemon in it I wanted it to taste of a box of lemons!

The food has become more condensed and refined, a book is coming out ‘Beyond Essence’ and you can really see the evolution between the books of the dishes on offer. The harmonious development of flavour combinations and textures has been the constant framework and the end products evolving in line with that mantra.

Some of the pioneering chefs like Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi and Heston Blumenthal have opened new volumes of knowledge to chefs; not just in terms of the ingredients available but also the chemical products and techniques that can deliver on the taste and texture fronts.  It would be wrong not to keep learning, experimenting, and having an enquiring mind; you have to evolve and grow to keep pace with the market but also to fulfill yourself as a chef.

It also important to develop the creativity across the team, especially in a small kitchen like we have here – we would balance the working week with having the team work on dishes, to perfect them, to create new things.  On occasions they will perhaps work on the du jour menu and, along with my input, demonstrate and learn their creative instincts.  To enjoy a job and gain satisfaction, it’s important to loosen the reins a little and give the team this freedom.

What do you make of the foraging trend? 

I think I was an early forager (smiling).  The team does some foraging and we also employ foragers for some of our ingredients; its not only good experience to use these ingredients but also interesting and enjoyable to teach the brigade.  Foraging has quietly been going on for many years in this country – Simon Rogan is a good example.  It makes me chuckle how some chefs appear to claim to have re-invigorated the industry with this trend, when in fact sometimes dishes become self serving for the effect of foraging. So we will make use of ingredients that are foraged but only in harmony with the strict taste, texture, presentation way of the restaurant.

Which restaurants and chefs currently inspire?

In restaurant terms, In de Wulf, feels to me like a purer and cleaner Noma.  I find that restaurant to be inspirational.  In Honfleur, there’s a restaurant calld Sa.Qua.Na, a Michelin Two Star, we make it to every Christmas time and enjoy very much.

In this country, chef wise, I can’t help but be admiring of Brett Graham with his dedication and foresight, a very friendly and approachable person as well.  Phil Howard is a chef’s chef and such an accomplished technician.  Although I’ve not visited Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume for quite a while, I find his food inspiring and creatively challenging.

From the early days, Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White were inspiring me to want to become a top chef.

What is your favourite dish to cook at the moment and tell us some of the techniques involved?

A potato dish.  It has a caramelized onion base that’s like an onion jam puree.  We use Witchill potatoes when they’re in season, we poach the potatoes off and slice them with their jackets on, before re-warming in a butter solution.  A leak ash is added which is done by blanching the greener leeks that we don’t use; splitting, drying and putting them under the grill until they’re black.  This is powdered and put through a chinois; the finished leek powder coats the potatoes and three or four are served on the plate.  (The effect is a black powder that has a lovely leak taste.)

Champignon Sauvage Potato

We make a buffalo milk curd, with milk from a Buffalo farm in Herefordshire, pickled green elderberries are scattered across the dish.  We make a turkey pastrami; which involves marinating a turkey breast, curing it with spices and herbs, and hanging it for ten days before slicing it wafer thin.  This has a salty edge to it and so provides the seasoning for the rest of the dish.

I personally like to serve it with a little pink purslane as it has a slightly beetroot taste to it along with a little verjus syrup – one of our customers supplies some small sour grapes that we juice, then boil and pass off.  This is mixed one bottle of juice to two bottles of white port and reduced down to a syrup which has an acidic but sweet end to it.  We add the verjus and sprinkle some more ash over the top of the plate.

My favourite dish is changing all the time but this is my favourite of the moment!

What do you make of Michelin starred chefs on TV?  Still not for you?

They’ve helped to promote the trade enormously and got the message out to the customer.  People can now see the difference between home cooking and top end restaurant cooking.  The down side is that for some chefs it as an objective rather than an extra (outside of cooking in their restaurant): A kind of career shortcut when the only way to make it to the top of any profession is through countless hours of long hard work and learning as you go along.

There may be a place for me doing something on TV but it’d have to be on my days off!

What are your plans for the future?

I’m happy and fulfilled; keep my head down and work hard and what will come will come.

Diego Masciaga, Waterside Inn, Video Canard a la Presse (2012)

Posted on: June 3rd, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

A fine-dining-guide produced video of the master of master of ceremonies – Diego Masciaga, Director Waterside Inn, Bray – preparing the very special dish Canard a la Presse.