Since becoming Head Chef in 2003, Martin Burge has received high acclaim from food critics and his peers for his refined, gastronomic cuisine. With two Michelin Stars, 8/10 in the Good Food Guide – making ‘The Dining Room’ one of the top twenty restaurants in the country – and four AA rosettes, he can be justifiably proud of his culinary achievements. Named Chef of the Year by The Independent in 2009, he has exceeded this by being admitted to the elite group of Grands Chefs in 2011. It is clear that Martin is near the peak of his profession, being recognised for his major contribution to their craft.
Not that he has exhausted his creative energy and is content to coast. In talking to him, you cannot fail to be impressed by his almost youthful enthusiasm, his genuine passion for food, and his utter determination to progress further. He rightly shuns the current vogue in criticising the use of amuse bouches and pre-desserts by serving two of each on his menu: they add value and are a further outlet for new, sometimes playful ideas. He embraces new kitchen technology such as the water bath which gives greater consistency of result, and will experiment with ingredients and techniques: for instance, a crisp sesame biscuit to accompany an amuse bouche is actually made from bread rolled through a pasta machine to achieve its correct texture and thinness.
Having served under major names such as Richard Neat, Raymond Blanc and John Burton-Race, Martin could have easily synthesised their approaches and offered it as his own. Instead, he has created a personal, distinctive style in which classical French cuisine is given a modern interpretation. There are interesting but not outlandish combinations, updated cooking techniques, and innovative presentation, often with an element of surprise given the understated menu descriptions. Saucing is a particular strength, whilst foams and purees are always integral to the composition rather than extraneous flourishes. The multi component, labour intensive dishes are rich but light. Ingredients harmonise whilst retaining their distinctive tastes and textures. Precision in cooking methods and timing elicit their purity and depth of flavour.
Happily, Martin has not jumped on the “local is best” bandwagon, sourcing his scallops and langoustines, for instance, from Scotland rather than Cornwall. Nevertheless, regional products such as some excellent cheeses enhance his menu. Seasonality however, is more important, as shown, for example, by the top quality summer vegetables used in the dishes sampled.
The carte of seven starters, six mains, six desserts and cheese reflects the depth and breadth of his gastronomic versatility, from mushroom pannacotta through to blackcurrant ravioli. Menu descriptions, although detailed, still understate their composition and complexity of cooking. Six or seven dishes are changed with the seasons. However, two in particular are so popular it would be difficult to take them off. Martin is particularly proud of a starter of braised snails in a garlic cassonade with red wine sauce infused with veal kidney and a cheese /dessert of black truffle ice cream, lightly creamed Roquefort, deep fried goat’s cheese and candied walnuts. These have become signature dishes.
The Dining Room which serves forty covers is long and narrow, but divided into three sections, so the effect is more confined. More eclectic in design and decor than other parts of the hotel, it features wooden floors, screens, square brown framed mirrors, spotlighting and tasselled chandeliers. Tables are well spaced, with comfortable seating and conventional fine napery.
Fine Dining Guide was able to visit The Dining Room on a july evening to sample dishes from the carte.
Three breads were offered – onion, spelt and pain de campagne. All were well made, the onion bread to be especially delicious, with light crumb and crisp crust.
The canapés showed the painstaking attention to detail lavished on this part of the meal: poached quail’s egg with smoked eel spume and leek was rich and flavoursome; foie gras mousse, teriyaki jelly and sesame crisp delighted both in a range of tastes and textures; and beetroot disc with crème fraiche and white balsamic gel was a good balance of sweet and sour.
This trio of canapés was followed by an amuse bouche of well seasoned haddock tartare spiked with apple – a surprisingly good combination – and finished with a quenelle of Tewkesbury mustard ice cream that awakened the palate with its was lively heat and velvety smoothness.
The cooking of a starter of Scottish langoustine tails had been well timed to retain their sweet succulence. Accompanying them was a light, deeply flavoured cannelloni mousse made from the bisque of the shells wrapped in Madeira gel. Macaroni, stems of Swiss chard and peas proved suitably light and fresh garnishes. A truffle sauce spiked with more truffle brought this visually stunning dish together. (Wine: Chardonnay 2009, Domaine St Louis, Chablis, France)
Another starter of Squab pigeon breast was poached and roasted to give a delicate softness and caramelised crust. Croquette like towers made good use of the leg meat. The gentle gaminess of the pigeon was boosted by the creamy silkiness and gentle livery qualities of pan fried foie gras. A reduced jus of intense, dark Pedro Ximenez sherry, with tiny cubes of its jelly, together with golden raisins added a rich sweetness whilst lightly roasted pine nuts gave textural contrast. In conception and execution, this was another brilliant starter. (Wine: Tempranillo / Garnacha 2006 Bodega Izadi, Reserva Rioja, Spain)
An intermediate course saw a hand dived scallop paired with flakes of warmed salmon. The inherent sweetness of the seared scallop worked well with the smokiness of the oily fish. The wonderful freshness of the seafood was enhanced by a well balanced celeriac cream lightly infused with horseradish. Samphire and salmon caviar added elements of salinity and colour, enhancing the visual beauty of this dish which resembled a coastal rock pool. (Wine: Chenin Blanc 2009 Kanu, Stellenbosch, South Africa)
Main courses continued to impress with their clarity of flavour, balance of textures and artistry in presentation.
A fillet of utterly fresh Turbot was pan fried to produce a golden crust and flaky, moist white flesh. Sweet, delicate crayfish tails added another luxurious element, whilst its mousse gave a deep bisque like flavour. Creamed stems of Swiss chard, along with well cooked asparagus, courgette flower, peas and tiny wild mushrooms were appropriate summer vegetable accompaniments. Shellfish cappuccino and a hazelnut emulsion gave a sophisticated finish to this highly memorable dish. (Wine: Pinot Gris 2008 Matakana Estte, North Aukland, New Zealand)
Another main course of poussin bore similarities in conception to the pigeon starter. Here the tender, sweet, crisp skinned breast was paired with a puree of foie gras, and a cannelloni of ham hock and confit chicken. The ham gave just right salty accent to season the whole dish with its asparagus, pea and wild girolles garnish. A sticky Madeira jus spiked with truffle gave heady fragrance, elevating the whole dish. (Wine: Pinot Noir “margot” O.Leflaive Burgundy, 2009)
The English and French cheeseboard, supplied by Premier Cheeses, offered a wide selection of cheese made from cow, goat and ewe’s milk. Those we selected were models of their kind. Of the French cheeses, the triple cream Brillat Truffe was soft, smooth and aromatic; Tomme Brulee slightly smoky; and Fourme d’Ambert savoury, nutty and dense. The English Love Ewe cheese was suitably earthy and pungent, whilst Ticklemore was crumbly, clean and fresh. Three condiments of Sauternes jelly, honey and thyme, and apple and pink peppercorn chutney served as good counterpoints to what in many ways was the heaviest and richest course. (Wine: Taylor’s LBV Port 2003)
The two pre desserts – a tiny quenelle of tropical fruit sorbet and coconut alongside a foam base drank through a straw – were playful and enjoyable, cleansing the palate before the final course.
Apple and maple syrup cheesecake was first rate, amazingly light and fresh tasting, the gently acidic and sweet elements working well together. This was also true of the caramelised pecan nuts and poached apple, scooped into delicate balls, which also gave contrasting textures. A refreshing sorbet finished the dish perfectly. (Wine: Riesling, Late noble harvest 2008, Walker Bay, South Africa)
Cannelloni of Mango was a tour de force of invention and execution, the puree of the fruit forming the basis of the delicate sweet tube encasing a well flavoured, creamy mango mousse. This was cut by sharp lime curd and pink grapefruit segments and jelly, making this a well balanced dessert. (Wine: Moscatel 2008 Finca Antigua, Castilla la Mancha, Spain)
The petit fours, which included an intense blackcurrant and clove jelly and crisp macaroon, and hand made chocolates, were exemplary. (Some of these chocolates are included in the Whatley Manor chocolate box available for guests to purchase before they arrive)
The service, from mainly young staff, was welcoming, informative and attentive without being obtrusive. It was overseen by restaurant manager Glen Harris. The sommelier, deftly matched wines with food, giving concise, well informed descriptions.
Overall, this was a highly memorable, flawless meal of an excellent standard. Whilst meals in Whatley’s Manor’s Dining Room do not come cheap, the quality of the ingredients, the high levels of skill and artistry in producing the dishes more than justify the prices. This is cooking at a rare, highly elevated level by a master of his craft who still has even more to give. It is clear why Martin Burge and his team deserve the recognition they have achieved, and why they have the potential to go even further.