The home counties, the stock broker belt, a luxury hotel, indulgent accommodation and an overpriced restaurant serving indifferent food! This, unfortunately, is what we have come to expect from most hotel restaurants within a thirty miles radius of London. The dearth of high quality eateries within commuting distance of the great metropolis is a sad indictment of the mediocre standards we are prepared to accept locally. Apart from a few places such as Bray and Marlow, the search for Michelin level dining is a futile one.
Are restaurant enthusiasts happily prepared to journey to London, where there is an embarrassment of riches, and so accept the absence of local fine dining? And does this deter ambitious chefs from making and staking their reputations in the provinces?
Michael Wignall, who earned a Michelin star at the Burlington Restaurant in Yorkshire, is hoping to fill part of the gap at the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot. Set in acres of lush parkland in the Surrey countryside, this five star establishment houses the Latymer restaurant, which is serving dishes easily capable of earning Michelin accolades.
Some might argue that this is a surprising place to showcase his talents. The low ceilinged, oak beamed, paneled dining room, lit by mullioned windows and wall lights, and furnished with heavy high backed chairs and velvet banquettes might seem to be too old fashioned a setting for his very modern cuisine. A certain incongruity exists in this apparent mismatch of styles of décor and cookery.
Admittedly, a large hotel restaurant gains economies of scale which an independent restaurant could not offer: The multiple menus (including two separate tasting menus at lunch and dinner, both of which comprise dishes not taken from the Carte) as well as an abundance of luxuries such as foie gras, truffles, caviar, langoustines and miniature vegetables abound in a highly creative kitchen, seemingly free from financial constraints.
How refreshing to find a chef who admits on his menu cover that his food is “complex…and elaborate.” The multi component dishes – on average six or more items – show the labour intensity of his cooking and the serious attention to detail. Even the amuse bouches and the pre- puddings can be multi layered.
In most Michelin starred restaurants, the ever conscious need for consistency can often shackle creativity, however across two visits to the Latymer both are achieved with apparent ease.
Michael does not give himself or his brigade a break between services, given the huge amount of preparation needed. His gentle nature and slight stature belie a well drilled, highly organized and “loud” kitchen.
Michael also eschews the current obsession with regionality, admitting most of his poultry comes from France. He does include seasonal ingredients – asparagus, rhubarb and spring truffles were all in evidence – but is not constrained by them. Foams, a ubiquitous fad in fashionable restaurants, are used in moderation.
Occasionally it is not immediately clear which is the main element, given the eclectic collaboration of ingredients on the plate. This is not to say that tastes and textures clash. The beauty of Michael’s cooking lies in the clarity and cleanliness of taste coupled with harmonious combinations of texture. His modern European style has firm classical roots with a conscious artistry of presentation.
Canapes consist of six items including an intense foie gras parfait of silky smoothness. The amuse bouche of Salmon and citrus Langoustine salad provided a delicate opening.
A dish of slow cooked piglet was an up-market version of brawn, but made with meltingly tender flesh and a jellied consommé of great intensity. This was balanced in flavour and texture by truffled marshmallows, crisp ears and lightly pickled vegetables.
Canelloni of sugar snap and Portland crab was a triumph of invention, providing a real explosion of freshness of taste and contrasting textures. Combined with cumin scented tuna, and a generous serving of caviar, this was a light summer dish of exquisite quality.
A dish of Hereford snails, slow braised pork and garden peas confirmed the technical ability of the kitchen. Again the vegetable element shone in its freshness of taste, although this dish had one ingredient too many – a poached quail’s egg which added colour but little else.
Croise duck was perfectly timed to produce medium rare slices of meltingly tender and mildly gamey breast. The calves sweetbread, olive gnocchi and lettuce farci (stuffed with shredded duck meat) added to the richness, but did not imbalance the dish.
The two desserts included a deconstructed lemon tart – no pastry in evidence – combining a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. The accompanying mango parfait and sautern syrup complemented the astringency of the lemon perfectly. Chocolate negus was in the same league, confirming the skill of the pastry section.
Other aspects of the dining experience at the Latymer were exemplary; an engaging and well informed sommelier matched wines expertly to the tasting courses. The service was courteous, knowledgeable and attentive, but unobtrusive
Prices – of West End level – are in keeping with the quality of ingredients and the generosity of the servings, including the canapés, amuse bouches and pre puddings. Most importantly, they reflect the abilities of a chef on top form.
This is a bold new venture that deserves to succeed. And yet there were only three tables occupied at a Friday lunch. In London, the room would be packed with discerning foodies, fully appreciative of the delights on offer. Clearly, a wider audience is needed, and serious marketing investment is surely a priority.
From a restaurant recognition perspective there is no reason why Pennyhill Park should not be the next Gidleigh Park: Yes the cooking is fundamentally different, yet as much as you can compare contrasting styles they are of equal calibre: And while the target market profile may be somewhat different, getting that right is the only obstacle to realizing the clearly abundant potential.
Review by Daniel Darwood, 13th June 2008