Humphry’s is the fine dining restaurant of Stoke Park, now open to the general public. Lined with patterned gold fabric panels and large gilt framed mirrors, this handsome, elegantly proportioned room benefits from broad bow windows for natural light. In the evening, chandelier, wall and spotlighting create a seductive, warm glow. Above, the high ceiling retains the intricate plasterwork of the decorative cornices. Below, comfortable beige carver chairs are set around well-spaced tables with fine napery.
This is the magnificent setting for the cuisine of Executive chef Chris Wheeler who is celebrating ten years at Stoke Park. A disciple of Jean Christoph Novelli at Provence in Lymington and Maison Novelli in London, then later in the Hell’s Kitchen television series, Chris has achieved distinction in his own right. Within months of opening, Humphry’s was awarded two AA rosettes and has recently been awarded a third. Harper’s Bazaar has also voted it one of the “Top 20 Best out of Town Restaurants.”
With an emphasis on seasonality, locality and freshness, his modern British cooking based on classical technique demonstrates his skill and creativity at a high level. Whilst not cutting edge – and thank goodness for that – there are elements of innovation and playful interpretations. These are restrained, with a minimum of foams, smears and other superfluous flourishes. Employing a brigade of five chefs, Chris offers a choice of set, a la carte and a ten course tasting menu, the last showcasing popular dishes over his ten year tenure.
Fine Dining Guide sampled three courses from the carte and found much to appreciate.
An amuse bouche of pea soup was deeply flavoured and not too creamy. Deep fried cod brandade provided a well-seasoned accompaniment.
A first course of seared scallops was accurately timed to produce a caramelised crust and sweet, succulent flesh. For garnishes, the earthiness of a smooth celeriac puree was balanced by the sweetness of a red apple gel. Caviar gave an element of decadent luxury whilst a slice of crisp pancetta added another dimension of taste and texture.
Another starter of crab tian benefitted from a finely-judged balance of seasoned brown and white meat. (Why do so many chefs omit the brown meat?) With a base of cubed avocado and an innovative topping of cucumber gel, together with garnishes of soft boiled quail’s egg, caviar and micro leaves, the dish was finished with a grapefruit dressing. This gave the gently bitter acidity needed to offset the richer elements.
The two main courses were veritable masterclasses in the art of meat classical meat cookery.
Lamb came in two ways: tender canon, evenly cooked to a blushing pink, and slow braised, unctuous osso bucco, with meat that fell off the bone. Roasted garlic perfumed the dish whilst roasted vegetables, crisp green beans and champ potato proved highly satisfying accompaniments. A lip smacking, reduced red wine sauce based on veal stock brought the elements together perfectly.
Equally impressive was the beef course. A tournedos, topped with a generous serving of rich, melting bone marrow, was cooked to a perfect medium rare as ordered. Set on mashed potato and wilted spinach, and garnished with wild mushrooms which added an earthy note, this was another uncompromisingly indulgent dish, enhanced by deeply flavoured classic saucing.
Desserts showed more innovation than the preceding courses but were still firmly rooted in classical skills.
A wonderfully light vanilla cheesecake was crowned with a pineapple and passion fruit raviolo, which, when punctured, oozed with delectable puree to mix with a sweet syrup spiked with chilli. A tropical fruit salsa added texture and a zesty tang, whilst a coconut sorbet of velvety smoothness completed this refreshing, well balanced dessert.
A deconstructed Snickers dessert proved to be a tour de force of playful, imaginative confectionery. Quenelles of milk chocolate and peanut mousse were paired with salted chocolate caramel, a foam of caramel and a peanut tuile.
Other aspects of the meal were exemplary. The seamless service, from assistants with gold and black waistcoats and white gloved hands was welcoming, friendly and well informed. It was helpful and efficient without being obtrusive. The sommelier chose and explained the matching Chablis, Beaujolais and Zinfandel wines with a knowledge that comes from years of experience.
Clearly, Humphry’s has much to offer the discerning guest who wishes to eat first rate food in sumptuous, exquisite surroundings. It has made a strong impression on a leading restaurant guide and will no doubt extend its appeal to others. Fine Dining Guide will return to sample the tasting menu but in the meantime will follow the fortunes of Humphry’s with interest.
Note: Chris Wheeler is participating in the 2013 London Marathon, here is what he has to say on the subject!:-
‘In a moment of madness I decided to enter Capital FM’s competition to win one of ten special ‘Help A Capital Child’ charity places to run in the Virgin London Marathon 2013 and they picked me out of hundreds of applicants. Seven years ago I ran the marathon flipping a pancake all the way, so thought this year ( with 10 weeks prep time and no visits in the past 7 years to the gym!) I’m doing it with a stock pot. With your help, I aim to raise £10,000 for Help a Capital Child which supports children and young people affected by abuse, homelessness, disability, poverty and illness in and around London. I am running for the Breakfast team, alongside Capital FM presenter, Pandora.’