Richard Davies’ (Above) cheerful, engaging personality makes him instantly likeable, and must be a major asset in a busy kitchen. With an impressive CV, having worked in the restaurants of Gordon Ramsay, John Campbell and Thomas Keller to name but three top chefs, he became Head Chef of Sawyards Restaurant in West Sussex at the age of 25. Within 6 months he had gained a Michelin star.
Richard admits he fell in love with the Manor House – as many do – when approaching the hotel along the majestic drive for his first interview, Arriving to take control of the kitchens in August 2007, he was awarded a Michelin star in January 2009, the 18 months being short by Michelin standards if not his own.
He admits that John Campbell helped him to moderate his intense, aggressive Ramsayesque approach. Now his calmer manner in the kitchen is used to produce a cuisine streets ahead of most luxury country house hotels, meeting and often exceeding diners’ high expectations.
Although he uses it as convenient shorthand, Richard is hesitant in describing his cooking as “modern British cuisine,” The broad range of styles and time period it encompasses, makes the tag too imprecise and misleading: even Heston, he claims, is now doing what Ferran Adria has pioneered for years. He reflects on how chefs should not be too “militant” and inflexible in their approach, as this can result in stiff and over formal service in the restaurant. An element of fun, with a more relaxed approach – as seen in his favourite restaurant, The Ledbury – will enhance the dining experience.
Whilst not intentionally aiming for a star, his cooking style and dishes he likes to eat happily fit into the Michelin mould. There was less pressure in the kitchen, he admits, before gaining a star, but keeping it has made him more demanding and questioning of his own product. Ultimately, however, he will cook what the customers, those who pay the bills, prefer.
The classical French base of his cooking is adapted with innovative, contemporary touches. Menus change with the seasons, but not all at once, with new dishes being introduced gradually, or half at any one time. Richard is also not obsessed with local produce, which he feels can be over hyped. Whilst applauding local boar and lamb, which he can trace from field to plate, he will not sacrifice quality for locality. Thus, he still sources hand dived scallops from the Isle of Skye, which he views as the best. Another reason is that local ingredients, including those from the kitchen garden, cannot possibly sustain a restaurant of up to 90 covers, plus the demands of various private and corporate functions,. Indeed the £1.2 million spent on food last year suggests the need for sourcing from a much wider market.
The Bybrook dining room is an extension added in 1980. Although large, with well spaced tables accommodating 50+ covers, the room lacks the character and charm of the older parts of the hotel. Far from enlivening the room, the oak beams, carved stone work, stained glass windows, chandeliers, gilt framed portraits and thick drapes add to its heavy feel. Perhaps this is an advantage, because the real interest in the room lies in the food
Menus range from the good value market menu at lunch (£30) to the carte (£60 for three courses) and the Menu Prestige (£72 for five courses with an amuse bouche and pre dessert)
Fine Dining Guide had the pleasure of sampling the Menu Prestige with matching wines on a quiet weekday evening
Mi-cuit of salmon exposed the utter freshness and delicacy of the fish in its semi cooked form. A puree of celeriac and horseradish gave a gentle kick, whilst beetroot added sweetness and contrasting texture. A generous blob of caviar provided the necessary salt, giving also a luxurious decadence. Although only an amuse bouche, this was a highly innovative, perfectly balanced composition, auguring well for what was to follow.
Seared scallops with cauliflower puree and oven dried florets has been tried and tested in many high end restaurants. What distinguishes Richard’s version is the addition of an agro dolce dressing, a balsamic based sweet and sour reduction which elevated without overwhelming the seafood. (Wine: Rias Baixas, Viegadares.Albarino, Adegas Galegas, Galicia, Spain 2008)
The quality of the Torchon of duck foie gras was exceptional: marination, salting, spicing and rolling of the lobe had been carefully executed to produce a rich, smooth and melting result. Balancing this were gingerbread tuile which gave crispness and a fig and port reduction and jelly adding a depth of sweetness. (Wine: Gewurtztraminer Signature, Rene Mure, Alsace, France 2008)
Pan fried turbot was perfectly timed to produce a golden crust with firm meaty flesh. This robust fish easily stood up to the earthy, rich flavour of the cep, celeriac and pancetta fricassee garnish. (Wine: Bramito, Chardonnay, Castello dello Sala, Umbrio, Italy, 2008)
Lamb was served in two ways: the herb crusted cannon was cooked pink to maximize flavour whilst a confit belly benefited from long slow cooking giving a melting unctuousness. This contrasted with mushy peas, a truly inspired garnish which added a freshness and colour. So too did the now ubiquitous pea shoots which, thankfully, were used in moderation, although they did add a distinctive fragrance to the dish. (Wine: La Fleur Laroze, Merlot, Caberet Franc, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux , France 2005)
A pre dessert of rhubarb and orange jelly, vanilla cream orange granite proved an excellent balance of contrasting textures and temperatures and sweet and astringent flavours.
Warm Valrhona chocolate fondant was suitably rich and runny. The rum ice cream might have benefited from more alcohol, although the chestnut puree avoided being over sweet. (Banyuls, Rimage. Les Clos de Paulilles, Grenache Noir, Roussilln, France 2008)
Incidentals of home made breads (a choice of four, the foccaccia being the best), coffee and petit fours were all top notch
This was a highly satisfying meal, clearly demonstrating the precision and versatility of Richard Davies’ cooking. It was enhanced by efficient, helpful and knowledgeable service overseen by Head Waiter Michal Szelagowski. Assistant sommelier Ben, in particular, was effusive in his matching wine descriptions, keen to demonstrate his expertise.
The Bybrook is a restaurant of which the hotel can be justifiably proud. Its popularity, especially at lunchtimes and at weekends, reflects a solid appreciation of the skill and creativity of Richard Davies. Whilst attracting local clientele, especially at lunchtimes, it has also become a destination restaurant and is clearly going from strength to strength.