A meal at The Garden Room Restaurant is something you selfishly want to keep secret. Once news of Craig van der Meer’s superb cuisine spreads, securing a table becomes more difficult. On the other hand, you cannot resist telling others, celebrating his food and encouraging them to go. Having visited several times, I reluctantly succumbed to the latter.
The Garden Room is the fine dining restaurant of Stoke Place, a well preserved country house hotel built in the classic William and Mary style of the late 17th century. For many years the family home of high ranking aristocracy, it eventually became a private hotel in 2005.
The wooden floored room itself is a light and airy space. The walls, lined with pastel blue paneling up to dado level, are enveloped in a bold green vine pattern against a white background which is very heavy on the eye. The decor is more suited to fine weather, when the open sash windows allow a gentle breeze to waft through the room. In winter, given the absence of curtains and blinds, it adds to the coldness of the room. The furniture is a mix of designer tables of varying shapes, size and colours, with upholstered Bauhaus chairs. Lighting is provided by wall lanterns, supplemented by standard lamps. Modern country house the design certainly is, but is it a sufficiently luxurious for showcasing cooking of this quality?
Fine dining in top end hotels dominates Craig’s impressive CV, which includes being Sous Chef at the celebrated Five star Arabella Hotel and Spa near Cape Town in his native South Africa. In England, he refined his skills at Langshott Manor and Frimley Hall Hotel and Spa before becoming Sous Chef at Stoke Place. His undoubted creative and organisational ability led to promotion as Head Chef after just one year. Accolades, including three AA Rosettes within 18 months of joining the AA Restaurant Guide, and entries in The Good Food and Michelin Guides, confirmed his position on the British gastronomic map.
While the hotel’s website describes Craig’s food as modern British, inventive and seasonal…Seasonal and locally sourced ingredients are used to create interesting versions of traditional fare,” it gives little indication of the range of classical and contemporary techniques employed. When used, the sous vide method is applied without the use of cream or stocks, keeping tastes of main ingredients natural and pure, even if rendered in different ways. The precision of timing; the harmonious combination of flavours, textures and temperatures; and the conscious artistry of the presentation all contribute to the exciting vibrancy of the cuisine. From conception to completion, this is the labour intensive, creative gastronomy of a highly talented chef.
Dishes can feature unusual ingredients such as mizuna, mooli, chakalaka, Cape gooseberry and bee pollen, with garnishes such as gels, spheres, and foams adding to the overall interest of the cuisine.
The relatively short carte of five starters, five mains, four desserts and one cheese option allows each dish to be given maximum attention to ensure consistency. Pricing makes dining in the Garden Room reasonably accessible. Two courses from the carte cost £35, with three for £45. The eight item Tasting Menu costs £55, with a flight of six wines for £35 more. Cooking of this quality in central London would be half as much again. The impressive 361 wine list features a wide variety of wines by the glass carafe with variations to match seasonal changes in the menu.
Fine Dining Guide visited on a Wednesday evening in March. Understandably not as busy as at weekends, when there can be 40-60 diners, (with the overflow dining room coming into use), nevertheless the 24 cover restaurant deserves a larger weekday audience.
Three homemade breads were exemplary in their crisp crusts and firm crumb. The Guinness bread was outstanding in its dark malty sweetness and the white truffle bread had a pleasingly light texture.
It is rare to be offered more than one amuse-bouche; here the chef had the confidence to serve two:
Pumpkin espuma and curried banana was suitably smooth with added crunch from a granola of pumpkin seed.
A velvety smooth lemon grass sorbet with pickled ginger and lime meringue crisp was a fragrant palate cleanser.
An inventive “surf and turf” starter featured smoked eel and Serrano ham, their moist saltiness combining well in deep fried croquettes. Passion fruit foam and puree cut the richness, while thinly sliced pickled kohlrabi added contrasting taste and texture.
Another successful starter was scallops prepared two ways: accurately seared to produce a caramelised crust with moist, sweet flesh; and a tartare of lively freshness and delicacy. Charred cauliflower florets and peanut puree added texture and a wasabi “sphere” gave a well- judged, not overpowering, lift to the seafood.
Grilled lobster tail was accurately timed to produce a gentle smoky flavour and succulent texture. Smooth parsnip puree and al dente purple and golden beetroot added contrasting earthy textures and flavours, and apple puree gave a sweet acidity. This visually stunning dish was a brilliant combination of tastes, textures and temperatures.
A terrine of rabbit, using different cuts of the animal, was moist, flavoursome and well pressed, giving a mosaic effect. Contrasting in texture and flavour was a rich, creamy torchon of foie-gras. Spicy cubes of chorizo lent a spicy note, although the molecular “snow” added more colour than flavour. The piquant pepperiness of the unusual mizuna leaf acted as an extra seasoning. Melon puree and jelly provided the sweet element the dish needed.
Main courses continued the themes of invention, attention to detail, clear tastes and clean presentation.
Venison from Everleigh farm in Sussex was accurately seared and fully rested, giving a soft, almost melting texture and a mild gamey flavour. Sharp cape gooseberry compote proved an ideal foil for the rich meat. Celeriac puree and caramelised endive added a sweet earthiness of contrasting textures, whilst a red wine jus successfully bought the various elements together.
Pan fried wild sea bass had a crisp skin, firm white flesh and delicate flavour. Perched on a bed of soft, buttery samphire, it married well with a creamy vanilla and corn puree flecked with crayfish. Purple potato added colour and substance to this well balanced dish.
A pre dessert of black pepper and cream cheese sherbert, raspberry, and compressed pineapple was at once light, fruity and refreshing.
Desserts are given a much care and attention as starters and mains.
Freshly prepared cinnamon doughnuts were amazingly light, warm and delicately spiced. Smooth ginger bread ice cream, set alongside spiced poached pear, gave contrasting flavour, texture and temperature. This composite dessert benefitted from a final crunch and sweet lift with the addition of honeycomb.
A cheese alternative came in the form of an Oxford Blue roll, the creamy consistency and sharp, clean flavour of which was given added interest with pumpkin seeds. These also formed the crisp base of caramelised brittle on which the roll rested. Coffee gel and cubes of kiwi fruit jelly gave extra colour and flavour to this playful dish – a good choice for those who cannot decide between cheese and dessert.
Good coffee and petit fours of milk and dark chocolates and fruit jellies completed a highly accomplished meal, made more enjoyable by courteous, informative and efficient service.
It is clear that Craig and his team are producing refined, cutting edge food, with a wealth of innovation and experimentation. We will return to sample other dishes such as Lamb Canon with basil, homemade feta and chakalaka or Hake with honey and yellow carrot jelly, bee pollen, fennel and horseradish, confident they will surprise and delight. In our view this is Michelin star cooking, it only being a matter of time before this accolade is awarded. Fine Dining Guide will follow the restaurant’s progress with interest.