Restaurant Review: Auberge du Lac, Welwyn (Oct 2012)

Posted on: October 31st, 2012 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Auberge du Lac

Our first visit to Auberge du Lac some years ago began with embarrassment: we mistakenly rang the doorbell of the main Brocket Hall residence. Our mistake had been to enter by the wrong entrance to the 540 acre estate, which was easy to do, especially at night, given the paucity of signposts both outside and within the grounds. The staff, who appeared used to re-directing unwary diners, pointed the way to the far side of the grounds.

Auberge du Lac Sign

Housed within the elegantly proportioned, converted hunting lodge overlooking an ornamental lake, few restaurants can match the idyllic, romantic setting of Auberge du Lac. The ground floor bar, with stone fireplace, soft lighting and leather bucket chairs is a comfortable place for pre and post prandial drinks. Downstairs is the conservatory dining room, carpeted with well-spaced tables and fine napery.

The modern French cooking of Michelin chef Phil Thompson is unashamedly complex. Skilled classical techniques are combined with modern approaches – aided by the latest kitchen technology – to produce labour intensive, innovative dishes. Ingredients are the finest, whether local or from further afield: Phil has avoided the tiresome, uncritical bandwagon of “local is best.”

Combinations of ingredients, sometimes with an oriental influence, may surprise, but always work in terms of taste, texture and temperature. Menu descriptions are terse, belying the intricate, multi–layered nature of many dishes. Micro herbs, smears, gels, and scatterings are not mere decorative garnishes but essential components of fully integrated creations. Presentation on a variety of porcelain and stoneware plates and bowls do full justice to key qualities of each dish.

An exciting tasting menu revealed the breadth and depth of Phil Thompson’s cutting edge cuisine.

An amuse bouche of creamy leek and potato mousse was given extra flavour and texture by the addition of smoked haddock and crisp crutons.

Auberge Pre Starter

A large, plump scallop was perfectly timed to produce a caramelised crust and succulent flesh. The soft fruitiness of roasted pear complemented the bivalve well, whilst a vanilla flavoured puree added a savoury taste and sweet fragrance.

Auberge Scallop

A generous tranche of seared foie gras was unctuous in flavour and velvety in texture.  It was paired with an innovative coconut sponge and garnished with blackberry, the fruity acidity of which cut the richness of the liver. Frozen yoghurt gave the dish the added dimension of coldness which contrasted with the warmth of the delectable offal. The result was a taste explosion in the mouth.

Another successful combination saw earthy, nutty cep mushrooms paired with meltingly rich pig’s head brawn. Although yeast butter added further lushness, the sweet acidity of pickled grapes and peppery kick of watercress gave the dish the balance it needed.

Auberge Brawn

Serving raw seafood might appear a risky strategy, but the tiny Myler prawns – a relatively new ingredient on top end menus – were delicate, sweet and simply dissolved in the mouth. Deeply flavoured roast shrimp dashi complemented the uncooked prawns well. Pink fir apple potato gave substance and texture to this simple yet sophisticated dish.

Auberge Prawn

A granite of tarragon, dressed with apple, beetroot and buttermilk, was a cool, herby palate cleanser which enlivened the taste buds.

How pleasing to see mutton – so often shunned in fine dining restaurants – on the tasting menu.  For those who tire of the ubiquitous lamb, no matter how sweet and tender, this grossly underrated meat delighted with its robust flavour and firm texture. Goat’s cheese added a muted lactic sharpness, whilst charred leek gave a smoky but not overpowering flavour. Autumn truffle shavings lifted the whole dish with a heavenly fungal aroma.

Auberge Mutton

A quennel of Roquefort mousse of smooth consistency was well judged in its tangy flavour and muted pungency.  Quince jelly and a port based sauce added a balancing sweetness.

A pre dessert scoop of toffee apple parfait, beautifully smooth in texture and caramelised in flavour. It came with a well executed sugar tuile and accompanying sorbet.

Auberge Pre Dessert

Fresh figs benefitted from being poached in port which offset their natural blandness, adding a deeply rich sweetness. Their softness was complemented by pain perdu and worked well with an bitter dark chocolate dressing and vibrant citral notes of orange gel. This was another exemplary combination of flavours and textures.

Other aspects of the meal were equally impressive: tiny choux puffs filled with chicken liver parfait were star canapés; a dish of mackerel rillettes was a pleasing alternative to butter for spreading on tomato bread; a delicious smoked bacon brioche had a crisp crust and buttery crumb; and chocolate truffles were skilfully executed.

Service was efficient and well informed. The sommelier chose and presented matching wines from an impressive list. The consummate ease with which she did this reflected knowledge and experience.

Clearly Auberge du Lac is a restaurant of distinction, recognised by high ratings in most of the leading food guides. It remains a mystery why it has recently lost the Michelin star it held since 2009. However, this can only be a temporary aberration, given the accomplished skill and quality ingredients displayed on the tasting menu. We look forward to next year’s guide with interest