Archive for August, 2015

Waitrose Good Food Guide 2016: Press Release

Posted on: August 25th, 2015 by Simon Carter

GFG 2016_webfinal

Restaurant Review: Chewton Glen, New Milton (August 2015)

Posted on: August 24th, 2015 by Simon Carter

Executive Head Chef Luke Matthews was able to spare time from his very busy kitchen to update me on recent developments. It says much for his job satisfaction that Luke has been with Chewton Glen for over twenty years. He is content but does not rest on his laurels as the everyday demands are relentless: the generous buffet and cooked breakfast; the popular set lunches; the Spa pool lounge with healthier options; afternoon tea averaging 60-70 guests; and dinner for a maximum of 156 covers. Large wedding and conference parties create additional pressures, especially on busy Saturday nights. But this is nothing new, and his talented, hard-working team of 28-30, many of whom are specialised chefs, has coped admirably well.

Luke_Matthews_Article-300Luke’s effective management style has produced a higher than average retention rate, often for three years or more, in an area with few local attractions for young chefs. This means they are passionate about their work and show the dedication and consistency needed in a highly pressurized environment. Not that he overworks his “great” team as his insistence on an afternoon break and a maximum five day working week demonstrates. His nurturing of young talent through the Academy of Culinary Arts scheme – five have joined the team and two more are in training – is a recent initiative that has also added value to the team.

Grateful for continual investment in the kitchen and dining areas, Luke has found making the restaurant more accessible – which began shortly after we last visited in 2010 – an unqualified success. With a choice ranging from soups and simple grills to seasonal a la carte dishes and a fine dining tasting menu, some 80% of residents now opt to dine in, compared with 50% previously.

Whilst this approach might not appeal to Michelin inspectors, this is, thankfully, not his main priority. Rather, it is giving people what they want to eat, from gourmet to light meals, in unstuffy, relaxed surroundings. Luke stresses the need for a balance between continuity and change in the food offering. Many hotel guests stay for a few nights and need variety; others return for popular dishes such as cheese soufflé and Thai lobster curry which would be hard to take off the menu.

Clearly, given the exigencies of catering in a luxury country house hotel, and a hugely successful one at that, Luke is not too precious about his food, producing limited repertoire for foodies, as is possible in smaller establishments. A refreshing honesty is also seen in his approach to suppliers. They need to be big given the scale of the operation but also supply the best. If this is not easily accessible, he will source from further afield, not being a slave to local or regional sourcing. Whilst an increasing amount of seasonal fruit, vegetable and herbs is being supplied by the kitchen garden, and foraged items sourced within the hotel’s grounds, the need to maintain good relations with his suppliers is paramount. In this regard, sourcing of sustainable produce is very important: The Dining Room is a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, being awarded the maximum “Three Star Sustainability Champion” in its star rating scheme.  Special events placing extra but rewarding demands on the kitchen have included the well-attended Alex Lewis Trust fundraising dinner with guest chefs James Martin, Pierre Koffmann and Michael Caines. A “Sweet as Honey” estate tour was planned for 29 June and a Taittinger Summer lunch took place on 19 July. With the 50th anniversary book in preparation, Luke will be even busier than normal in finalising past recipes.


The Dining Room at Chewton is, in fact, five areas re-modeled from the old Marryat/Vettiver restaurant. Each has its distinct character and can be sectioned off depending on numbers and occasion. For instance, the seductively dark Wine Room, lined with display cabinets housing some of the finest vintages, can be used as a private dining room as well as for wine tasting. In contrast, The Summer House, which has benefitted from a recent makeover, is light and airy, with a fresher look. A new wooden floor (replacing the tiles), upholstered carver chairs, and lime green banquettes set against a paneled mirrored far wall make for more stylish, comfortable dining. The two rows of well-spaced round tables, dressed in fine napery remain, are separated by long wooden serving tables decorated with miniature trees. The circular steel chandeliers add a twinkle of light but need to be supplemented by spotlighting above the tables. Overseen by the young and knowledgeable Restaurant Manager, Alex von Ulmenstein, service was in safe hands.

The extensive menu features dishes to suit all tastes. International influences are seen in Thai lobster curry, Vietnamese chilli beef salad and Lamb tagine. More conservative diners might opt for roasts from the trolley or fish and steaks from the grill. The extravagant could indulge in oysters and caviar whilst the abstemious might stick to a choice of three soups. There are nine starters, eight mains, eight options from the grill and three roasts (Friday to Sunday only). A six course tasting menu, (£70 + £45 for wine) is available, whilst the set lunch menu (£26.50 for three courses) offers a generous choice of three starters, five mains and three desserts. Connoisseurs face a real embarrassment of choice from over fourteen hundred wines – one of the most extensive wine lists in the South of England. Both Old and New Worlds are amply represented, along with wines from up and coming wine producing countries. A team of five sommeliers led by Francesco Gabriele liaise with over 30 suppliers in maintaining a distinguished cellar which in 2014 won the esteemed three star World’s Best Wine Lists awarded by The World of Fine Wine.

Sipping cocktails in the bar, the wide choice on the menu delayed our decisions, but true to what Luke suggested, we decided on what we WANTED to eat rather than adopt the “right” or “balanced” approach. For starters, I opted for Cheese soufflé, a signature dish that has been on the menu for some 20 years and which, shamefully, I never tried on my previous visit in 2010. Twice baked, it was well risen and fluffy, bursting with Emmental flavour and floating on an unctuous pool of warm double cream and cheese lifted by a generous dash of kirsch. A truly decadent dish, both light and rich it was served with a lightly dressed walnut salad to give balance of texture and flavour.

Chewton cheese souffle

Elizabeth had a tian of Portland crab, featuring the freshest and sweetest of white meat bound in a light mayonnaise and spread with a thin layer of the stronger tasting brown meat which did not overwhelm the dish. Balanced by apple and pickled mouli, which gave the necessary acidity, celeriac remoulade for crunch and melba toast for a crispness, this was a simple, well-constructed dish employing the finest of ingredients.

Chewton crab

As an intermediate course we shared a tasting portion of Thai lobster curry, a favourite amongst restaurant guests. The crustacean was accurately timed, preserving its sweet succulent flesh, whilst the medium strength coconut based sauce was an authentic balance of hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours.  Okra and pak choi provided fresh, mild vegetable accompaniments.

Chewton Thai lobster curry

A main course of lamb tagine came, amazingly, in deconstructed form. Braised neck fillet in a rich but not overly sweet sauce was meltingly tender. The slow cooked, flavoursome shoulder was encased in crisp brik pastry. Diced apricots came separately as a garnish along with harissa with a powerful but not overwhelming kick. Giant jeweled couscous and wilted spinach completed this original interpretation of a Moroccan classic.

Chewton Tagine

Elizabeth chose from the grill selection. A thick cut of calf’s liver cooked medium as requested came with crisp ventreche bacon, a gratinated Portobello mushroom and a creamy dome of mashed potato. Served with a separate red wine shallot sauce which brought these elements together successfully, this dish exemplified the skill in cooking simpler dishes which demand as much care as the more complicated ones.

Chewton Calf's  liver

We both chose light desserts having indulged in substantial starters and mains with an extra intermediate course. My trio of sorbets, mango, raspberry, lime has intense flavours and exemplary textures, having been scooped at just the right temperature. Served with biscotti, this was a clean and refreshing finish to the rich courses that preceded it.

Chewton sorbets

Warm rhubarb and raspberry soufflé with a crumbled topping was light and fluffy with a judicious balance of sweetness and acidity. Batons of softly poached rhubarb, both red and green varieties showed the pure fruit at its best. The accompanying clotted cream ice cream was exemplary in taste and texture and, thankfully, was not dropped into a soufflé, a practice which spoils both elements.

Chewton Raspberry and rhubarb souffle

Coffee completed a memorable meal, different from the tasting menu I enjoyed on my last visit five years earlier, but equally enjoyable. The skills demonstrated then, the careful balance of flavours, textures and temperatures, the refined creativity, conscious artistry in presentation and judicious timing, still apply, but now across a wide range of dishes. Given the scale in catering for such a prestigious establishment, this is no mean achievement.

Hotel Review: Chewton Glen, New Milton (August 2015).

Posted on: August 24th, 2015 by Simon Carter


Andrew Stembridge kindly interrupted his busy schedule to meet us for pre-dinner drinks. Discussing subjects as diverse as microclimates, his foodie children, guest chefs, the 50th Anniversary book, restaurant guides, Edinburgh, and, not least, recent developments at Chewton Glen, the inexhaustible energy and dynamic vision of this 44 year old Managing Director were abundantly clear.

Andrew_StembridgeHaving taken Chewton Glen forward in major directions during his 12 years at the helm, he might reasonably be expected to take stock and consolidate, but this is far from being the case; indeed, new projects are always in the pipeline. Perhaps this is not so surprising from a man named the “2010 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Hotelier of the Year”. Despite its Relais & Chateaux membership, five AA red stars, being recently voted “Best UK Holiday Hotel” and listed as one of the “World’s Best Hotels” by Conde Nast Traveller readers in 2014, the need to improve even further is constantly present.

Andrew’s restaurant initiative, started five years ago by creating one dining room with a wide ranging menu suitable for all tastes, has worked well. Given the large number of guests who stay for a few nights and do not want fine dining every day, this change satisfied an essential need that Luke Matthews, his head chef, was happy to embrace. Described admiringly by Andrew as a chef with “no ego”, Luke is not obsessed with chasing accolades; instead, accommodating the wishes of the guests has always been his first priority. This is true whether it be an off menu dish requested in a busy evening’s service, or, at the other end of the scale, executing a bespoke wedding menu planned by the bride and groom.

Andrew spoke enthusiastically about the treehouses, his major building initiative in a secluded part of the hotel’s extensive grounds. Having admired them from the access lane during my early morning walk, I could see why. The six treehouses, each containing two luxury suites, all of which have kitchenettes, outdoor terraces and hot tubs, are built on stilts overlooking a peaceful wooded valley. The fully glazed walls give panoramic views and ample natural light, whilst paneled exteriors mirror the arboreal surroundings. In four categories –Studio, Loft, Hideaway and Private – the Loft suites, with secret galleried bunk areas for children are popular with families, whereas the Hideaway suites, with separate bedroom “pods” accessed by a covered walkway, are often booked by small wedding parties and those wishing for a romantic getaway.


The next exciting project is a cookery school to be housed, hopefully, in a lodge by the main road. With the aim of providing not just haute cuisine tuition but more accessible courses such as cooking for men, it is likely to appeal to a wider clientele. It will also incorporate a gastropub and bakery, giving guests who might wish to eat outside the hotel an alternative, as pubs serving good food are a rarity in the immediate neighbourhood. Thus, the gastropub should fill a much needed gap as well as capturing passing trade.

Another important development has been the Kitchen Garden, a tour of which Darren Venables, the passionate and engaging Estate Manager, found time to give us the following morning. The Walled Garden, started four years ago, has been designed not just for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs, but also as a useable open space for weddings, conferences and barbeques, hence the wide paths and central patio and pergola. In this use, it has been highly successful.


At this early stage of development, the garden’s aim is not for self-sufficiency, although the output will increase annually. Rather, it is to focus on produce the kitchen cannot buy easily or cheaply, such as chive and courgette flowers, chard leaves and honey. To celebrate the hotel’s 50th Anniversary, the planting of 200 heritage variety trees in the orchard beyond the walled garden is a major part of the expansion plan. So too is the cultivation of gorse flowers for the production of in-house gin, with a distillery built within the cookery school. Foraging by Jennifer Williams occurs within the hotel’s extensive grounds, producing ingredients for jams and jellies. Duncan will be joining her for a special event “Syrups and Preserves – foraging, fruit and fun” in September.

Refurbishment is on-going in different wings of the hotel which has 70 bedrooms and suites. One of the most recent improvements (December 2013) is to be seen in the Coach House suites, which include the Alice Beverley suite where we stayed. This spacious, split level accommodation is ideal for families, each floor having its own bathroom and semi-private courtyard (downstairs) and rooftop balcony. Downstairs, new oak flooring covered by flat weave rugs give a classic country house feel, whilst and putty colour décor offer a neutral backdrop to the Burgundy Howard style velvet armchair and sofa, and eclectic combination of traditional and contemporary fixtures and fittings.


On each floor, supremely comfortable King sized beds dressed in the finest Egyptian cotton are supplemented by sofa/armchairs which convert to beds for children. Upstairs, a delightful secret snug area also sleeps two small children.


After a long drive to New Milton, we decided to luxuriate, maximising the use of the suite’s facilities. Champagne, fruit and chocolates on arrival were gratefully sampled. We caught up with the news on the flat screen television whilst sipping coffee from the easy to use Nespresso machine. Next for me was an indulgent soak in the luxurious marbled bathroom, complete with a built in waterproof TV and double walk in shower. Donning a soft, fluffy bathrobe I spent a nostalgic 30 minutes listening to Carol King’s “Tapestry” on the Bang and Olufsen CD player before changing for dinner.

Attention to detail and finishing touches are impressive. The umbrella stand; a blanket on the back of a Windsor chair; an iPhone docking station; a Sky TV box for recording; slippers – yippee!; a pull out shower attachment essential for rinsing after a bubble bath; fine Ren toiletries; ample supplies of bottled water; fresh milk in the fridge; a gift of Chewton honey and Marryat’s “Children of the New Forest” for bedtime reading (left at turndown), all enhance the guest experience. Enjoying your room may come at the expense of not taking full advantage of the excellent facilities Chewton Glen has to offer. Sadly, on a one night stay with dinner I had no time to sample the multi-award winning spa, complete with swimming pool, hydrotherapy pool and gym. (This is the obvious reason for a return visit).


I opted instead for a brisk, invigorating 20 minute early morning walk through the grounds and “Chewton Bunny” nature reserve to the coast, where a fine view of the Isle of Wight was the reward. The public areas are comforting and relaxing. The spacious Elphinstone Lounge and Morning room are ideal for taking morning coffee or afternoon tea. By contrast, the more compact paneled Colonel Tinker’s bar in rich red with leather arm chairs is popular for pre and post dinner drinks. The Terrace, ideal in good weather for al fresco consumption, can also be used in the cooler evenings, given the recent addition of giant heated parasols.

Ultimately, despite the splendid accommodation, luxurious facilities, and beautiful grounds, the greatest asset Chewton Glen has is its people.  This says much about the theme of staff as a “family”, treated as individuals at all levels. Some have been long serving and others have returned after stints elsewhere. Therefore Chewton has had the continuity and stability that a large scale operation needs to be successful. Apart from Andrew’s 12 years as Managing Director, Luke Mathews has served for over 20 years, and Darren Venables and Angela Day, Public Relations Manager, for over 15 years. From the welcome at check in, the tour of the facilities by Food and Beverage Manager, Ed Fitzpatrick, through to the helpful menu advice given by Restaurant Manager Alex Von Ulmenstein, and the breakfast service overseen by Head Waiter Tim Archer, the seamless service was at once professional, welcoming, informative and friendly. Making guests feel at home, going that extra mile to please, has helped to ensure that some 70% of guests are on repeat visits, probably the finest testament to Chewton Glen’s success.

Restaurant Review: Kingham Plough, Oxon

Posted on: August 12th, 2015 by Simon Carter


Hopelessly lost on the A40 when, according to the AA route planner, we should have taken the A44 from Oxford, we drove north from Burford, turned right onto a B road, and were blessed, on this long summer’s evening in mid-June with a view of the gently undulating English countryside, with the church tower of Kingham in the distance.

Deep in David Cameron country, Kingham, a few miles south west of Chipping Norton, is a delightful picture postcard village, full of honey coloured stone buildings. The Kingham Plough, a dining pub with rooms, has built up a national reputation as a destination restaurant serving modern British food. Featuring in the UK’s Top 100 Best Restaurants in the National Restaurants Awards for 2014 and 2015, it has also been garlanded with a host of national and regional awards including the Oxfordshire Dining Pub of the Year in the 2015 Good Pub Guide.

The Kingham Plough combines the relaxed and comfortable surroundings of a rural pub with serious attention to gastronomy. Unlike certain acclaimed gastro pubs, where little space is given to the casual drinker who prefers lighter meals to a three course dinner, here both groups are given equal attention, either in the spacious bar and terrace with daily blackboard snacks, or in the dining room, with an a la carte menu. Here, it is important to note that this family run operation is also child friendly and dog friendly!

Housed in a converted barn adjoining the original three storey house, the pitched roof, oak beams, plain white walls and partial wooden paneling of the restaurant give a rustic charm. This is enhanced by hessian floor covering overlaid with Indian carpets, an eclectic range of (well-spaced) wooden tables and chairs, and candle and picture frame lighting. Owner Emily Watkins has a busy life as Executive Chef whilst raising a young family with her husband Miles Lampson, who also heads the front of house team.


Emily was able to spare a few minutes from her hectic schedule to explain the philosophy of her cooking. Rarely have I heard a chef speak with such passion about her local suppliers – referring to them by their first names as if they were well known to all – and the quality of their produce. Daylesford Organic Farm and Alan Cox feature prominently, but all are given credit on the menu.

Asked about her winning fish course on the 2014 Great British Menu, she lamented it only appeared on the restaurant’s menu for a brief period as it was so expensive to produce. Aware of the dishes we had ordered, Emily enthusiastically recited their components, provenance and cooking methods.

Here was a chef totally immersed in her craft, communicating her love of food with a zestful delight. This is not surprising given her impressive CV which ranges from Ristorante Beccofino in Florence to the Fat Duck in Bray, mingled with working for a few weeks in various restaurants around the world and a period as a private chef.

The main lessons she took from these was the paramount importance of sourcing the best ingredients and the benefits of some modern methods of cooking. A card on each table explained the virtues of sous vide to maximise flavour and texture with consistency (before finishing in the pan). A small brigade is led Head Chef Ben Dulley, whose experience at Galvin at Windows and the Latymer, two very demanding kitchens, has stood him in good stead since joining the Plough in 2011.

The dishes at Kingham Plough look simple but involve various and often complex cooking techniques, both contemporary and classical. Timing and temperature control are consistently applied. Menus are seasonal, flavours are pure, and balance in taste and texture show ingredients at their best. Presentation is clean without being over fussy. A relatively short menu of four starters, five mains, four puddings (and a selection of nine cheeses) ensures that each dish, using the finest of seasonal ingredients, is given maximum attention.

An amuse bouche of home cured pork on onion marmalade and charred sour dough, with its combination of sweet and savoury flavours and soft and crunchy textures, served its purpose well in exciting the palate.

Bread made with local cereal and served with Holmleigh Dairy butter provided another delicious nibble whilst waiting for the first course.

A starter of Grilled Cornish Mackerel had been brined in a 10% salt solution to firm up the flesh then cooked sous-vide in rapeseed oil for nine minutes before a final blowtorching. This three stage process elevated this simple fish to lofty heights, resulting in a soft texture and gentle smokiness which balanced its natural oiliness. Equal attention was paid to the vegetables, which included rocksamphire, pickled to rid it of its soapy quality, marsh samphire, and blanched sea purslane and cucumber spaghetti. Rich and creamy Porthilly oyster mayonnaise with its briny accent, proved an excellent foil for the fish and foraged vegetables.


A pea and ham soup had all the sweetness and vibrant freshness of newly harvested peas, enhanced by a garnish of pea shoots sourced daily from Daylesford farm. Poured around a mound of flavoursome honey and mustard ham hock topped with a breaded crisp Cacklebean egg with soft yolk, the soup was an exciting, original and well executed interpretation of a much loved British classic.


A main course of Cotswold Spring Lamb featured roasted loin, accurately timed to a blushing pink, a succulent confit of its breast, and a dainty suet pudding encasing the slow cooked, sweet shoulder. Full justice to these different cuts was seen in the timing and method of cooking. Again, vegetables received serious attention: Bobby beans retained a crisp texture and vibrant colour; broad beans had a nutty, buttery sweetness and young carrots and carrot puree had been cooked in their own juice for a double hit of flavour. Brought together by a light jus, the dish was a veritable tour de force of meat and vegetable cookery.


Equally accomplished was Monkfish, chips and peas, a playful interpretation of another British classic. This multi component, understated dish came in two parts. Cornish monkfish tail had been cooked sous vide to retain its moistness, and then grilled to enhance the crustacean-like flavour of its dense flesh.


Served with fresh peas and Daylesford radish, it was sauced with a butter emulsion spiked with tarragon, fennel, chives and shallots to simulate a piquant tartare sauce. Served separately were two delectably soft monkfish cheeks – surely the best part of the fish, which were deep fried in the lightest of batter and accompanied by very moreish salt and vinegar matchstick chips.


For dessert, Strawberry Soufflé was light, well risen and intensely flavoured. Made the contemporary way without crème patissiere, the natural flavour of the fruit from Daylesford farm was allowed to shine. A jug of clotted cream custard was suitable rich whilst crisp, buttery strawberry shortcake gave the contrasting texture the warm dessert needed.


Elderflower and goat’s curd cheesecake was at once light, creamy and not oversweet, being topped with a delicate gooseberry gel. Poached gooseberries and gooseberry sorbet added a tangy, refreshing note, whilst the whole dish was dressed with delicate elderflower syrup.


Service throughout the meal was welcoming, knowledgeable and solicitous without being obtrusive. Overall, our meal at Kingham Plough was most enjoyable indeed, scoring highly in all respects. A repeat visit is a must not just to sample other delights from the carte, but also to try some of the bar snacks such as potted trout, Scotched quail egg or Cotswold rabbit on sourdough. Better still, an overnight stay would allow a guest to sample the full range of delights – lunch in the bar, dinner in the restaurant, an overnight stay in one of the beautifully furnished rooms, and a taste of the award winning breakfast!

Emily Watkins and her team have created an exceptional dining pub of which they can be justifiably proud, fully deserving of its success and the critical praise heaped upon it. Fine Dining Guide will certainly return, and will follow Kingham Plough’s progress with interest.