There are many questions I get asked about Michelin rated & higher end food; but one that crops up on a regular basis is people enquiring about Gidleigh Park. My reply is always the same.
Gidleigh Park is one of the very few places where you can go and be made to feel special, irrelevant of how much money you have or spend. I’ll be honest from the word go, I’ve already been to Gidleigh park twice before & it was great. My last visit was 2 years ago, so what’s changed in that time? Well in some cases not an awful lot: the setting; the highest levels of service & attention; the quality and yet in other aspects not so much. The food has moved on in leaps and bounds, in previous visits the cuisine was good & worthy of its two Michelin star rating. But I could see why the AA had demoted Gidleigh from the lofty position of five rosettes to four, a number of years ago. I’m now glad to report that excellence has found new levels.
On arriving at Gidleigh Park we were shown through to the tastefully decorated lounge; there’s the deluxe version Scrabble board ready for action, a window sill casually garnished with some of the previous year’s achievements and acres of the traditional country house floral patterns, which are sympathetic to the building’s heritage. If you are going to visit Chagford expecting modern & contemporary, you’ll be sorely disappointed. And so to the food.
Sitting down to a complementary glass of house champagne whilst perusing the menus on offer, of which there are three: an A la carte; Lunch and a Signature tasting menu, it reassures you that you’re in good hands with local food being treated with respect. After the choice of menu had been made, there was the small problem of the wine. Gidleigh Park under the previous owners used to have a maximum monetary mark up on their wines, thus encouraging patrons to indulge in premium wines for very little greater expense. As to whether this policy still exists is unclear, but the fifty three page wine tomb stretches to over 1300 bins so there is something for everybody. There is an excellent selection by the glass, with a ceiling at about £17 per offering and there are several pages of half bottles. With the choice of wine, water (of which there were three different sparkling varieties) & menu made, our canapés arrived.
If you mention canapés to people when talking gastronomically, small finger food is normally what springs to mind. Not at Gidleigh, oh no, it’s more like a prelude to an amuse bouche. The waiter first brought the cutlery & crisp linen napkin, followed by the oblong plate with a mushroom velouté, a miniature slice of foie gras terrine with rhubarb & finally langoustine tails accompanied with sauce vierge. So many chefs fail with mushroom soup, it’s either weak in flavour & texture because they haven’t puréed it enough & strained all the body out of it or lumpen and grainy because they fear the previous version. This however was exceptional; normally it’s hard to get excited by soup but this really was excellent, full of the mushroom flavours with slightly nutty undertones & for once a chef resisting the urge to partner it with the scourge of restaurant food, white truffle oil. The foie gras terrine was partnered with the modern day classic, forced rhubarb, which modestly cut through the richness of the fattened goose liver with ease. It didn’t overpower, but instead gently caressed with alternate levels of sweetness & occasional opposing tartness. By comparison the langoustine tails were a tad under whelming. The one tail split lengthways was dressed with the sauce vierge, but unfortunately both were cold, even room temperature would have been better but this was a small fly in what was a wonderful pot of ointment.
Not long after finishing our canapés, we were invited to move through to the oak panelled dining room. Although this may seem like a trivial matter, it is the experience that counts, the cushioning of the thick carpets, the welcoming nods & acknowledgments of the front of house staff and the thoughtful touches which almost seem to have fallen by the wayside in modern restaurants; like pulling the chair out for the guest. The dining table was dressed with crisp white monogrammed linen, a simple fresh flower arrangement, salt & pepper grinders & a slab of unsalted butter. Not long after being seated a waiter appeared with a selection of breads, it was pleasing to see that after each being offered to choose our preferred bread, the basket was left on the table instead of being whisked away. Again it is this type of attention to detail and thoughtfulness as to what the customer actually might want that sets Gidleigh apart. The emphasis is on the dining experience rather than what the chef thinks is appropriate, or may be well received in guide books; this is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
Shortly afterwards our pre-starter arrived, Scallop with celeriac, truffle & honey dressing. The unmistakeable hedonistic aroma of truffles wafted over the table as we savoured the classic Caines presentation. The dived scallop sat on top of a beautifully cooked disc of celeriac, akin to a coronation crown on a royal cranium: firm; juicy; lightly caramelised and perfectly seasoned. The ubiquitous salad was again a testament to the Mr Caines’ school of thought, sprigs of chervil (which has so fallen out of favour since Marco Pierre White’s heyday), juicy dressed leaves and topped with celeriac crisps. Everything about this dish exuded confidence & restraint, each component part was present for a reason: a texture; a scent; but all there for flavour.
From the choice of three starters on the lunch menu, my dining partner opted for the wild nettle risotto, whilst I fancied more of the foie gras and ordered the Duck confit & foie gras terrine with apples. Risotto is a good choice in a restaurant, if you can be assured that it’s going to be of the required texture and taste. Unfortunately too many chefs seem to think it’s acceptable to serve risotto in a metal ring, like it’s some kind of gastronomic lighthouse, thankfully this isn’t the case at Gidleigh Park, so you won’t be disappointed.
The pressed terrine of Duck confit duly arrived: elegant in presentation with caramelised walnuts; a solitary violet nasturtium flower; apple purée; parisienne apples; lightly pickled onions and young salad leaves. When lesser chefs tackle such dishes they often skimp on the luxury ingredients, thankfully Mr Caines and his head chef Mr Webber don’t, there is an ample 50-50 mix of foie gras & Duck confit, but not only that, it’s served at room temperature ensuring that melt in the mouth texture. The walnuts provided a crisp caramelised tone which fitted in beautifully with the rich goose liver & tenderised duck leg, whilst the apple puree added a touch of moisture and an acidity to cut through the richness. All in all, an accomplished dish.
Three courses in and next was a surprise course, the Salt Cod with a Crab salad & chorizo foam. The new crockery, or lack of it has shown how Gidleigh has moved on in recent times. The tableware is more focused, clean to the eye (as in aesthetics, not hygiene) and in keeping with Gidleigh’s country house roots. Whilst the miniature sauce jug filled with chorizo foam, did seem somewhat redundant, the rest of the dish really was as good as it comes. I could have eaten this as a main course with a crisp Chablis on the terrace for a mid summers lunch. The finely diced chorizo along with chunks of fresh white crab meat added extra dimensions to the exquisitely slow cooked cured fish, the tiny pieces of lemon added refreshing zing and citrus aromas to what was already an outstanding dish. As you may have noticed at this point I seem to be talking about aromas & smells quite a lot. This to me is one of the indicators with Michelin starred food, it has clearly defined aromas. It doesn’t only smell nice, but you can identify each and every element there, & this to my mind is as key to the dining experience as tasting the food itself.
Whilst the main course of Squab pigeon, morels, peas & foie gras may not have been the most photogenic dish, it definitely packed a punch which was well above its own weight. The Squab breast was as soft as butter, not really requiring the elegant steak knife supplied. The earthiness of the morels contrasting with the sweetness of the peas (in various forms of: shoots; purée & their entirety). The richness of the foie gras and the slight gamey hint from the Squab added a touch of decadence, raising the relative humble garden pea to nearly superstar status. Sadly it was gone all too soon.
After the ritual crumbing down, which for one of the few times was actually required due to the excellent quality of the breads, we requested an additional course.
At £10 per person the cheese course is excellent value for money. You have the choice of over twenty cheeses along with a variety of breads, wheat wafers & toasts. The true sign that you’re being looked after when it comes to a cheese board is how they lay them out when plating up. The uneducated, will randomly plonk their wares on your plate, give you a basket of generic cheese biscuits & leave you to your own devices. Again, the staff at Gidleigh genuinely care about the guests and the product they present. Each cheese is described in detail, not just in where & how it is made but what it tastes like, so you the customer can make an informed choice & thus enhancing your dining experience. On top of this the cheeses are arranged on an oblong plate with guidance on how to eat them, from left to right according to strength. As you’d expect the generic Jacobs biscuits for cheese is replaced with an all the more exciting proposition. A basket of two different wheat wafers, some walnut bread & slices of toast, again all actually thought through.
As you can possibly imagine lunch was now wading into the time for afternoon tea, but we weren’t done yet. Next to arrive at the table was a dish I’d had on my two previous visits, the exotic fruit salad with sorbet & pineapple crisp. This is a classic dish and typifies a lot of Mr Caines’ cooking, it’s a simple thing done well. The fruit must be at their peak of ripeness, the marinade mustn’t be too long or too short, the balance of the sorbet must complement yet not just be a passenger and the pineapple crisp should be just that, not coloured, not soggy, but crisp. The dice of the fruit are all uniform and moulded with a pastry cutter into a cylinder with the roché of tropical fruit sorbet nestled, topped with the pineapple crisp.
The final dish for me was actually from the a la carte, the assiette of Rhubarb. Yet again this is where the staff at Gidleigh excel. In many places where I dine out I’m asked about any dietary requirements, it may well be a sign of the times we live in to ask this, but unfortunately I do have one. It’s an allergy, not a fad or a dislike, an actual allergy which will cause me discomfort. Not fatal granted but it’s not pleasant either. But even at the time of presenting menus in the lounge the staff were fully aware of this and offered me an alternative to replace one of the dessert options, which featured my nemesis. Quite frankly it seemed rude not to take them up on their offer of the alternative which duly arrived. My dining partner opted not to have a dessert but had coffee instead, which when it appeared may as well have been a dessert. The trio of miniature puddings arrived with a cafetiere of coffee on a highly polished block of wood. Consisting of an iced lemon parfait, a macaroon & a buttermilk mousse with a berry compote, my companion declared them all excellent. As for my rhubarb plate, yes it was good, but by comparison to the rest of the meal it was somewhat two dimensional. Don’t misinterpret this as being a bad dish as it was wasn’t, just that everything was rhubarb, no real contrasts & compliments to make you really think about the dish as an entirety rather than a collection of three individual smaller dishes on one plate. On reflection it probably was the weakest dish on show during the meal, but it would still put 99% of other desserts I come across in the next two years in the shade.
So to the bottom line, as Jay Rayner once said about another restaurant
‘let’s not pretend it’s cheap, or even on nodding terms with cheap.’
It isn’t, but value for money? Absolutely! Lunch was a casual four hours and I’d be hard pushed to find a better way to spend four hours of your life for £85 per person, to include multiple courses of top rate cuisine, two bottles of sparkling water, ½ a bottle of red wine & two glasses of fizz. Service is slick- polished yet approachable. The food is outstanding, refined, measured & identifiable, with the magnificent wine list measured in every respect. The setting is jaw droppingly beautiful. When entrepreneurs from outside of the hospitality industry purchase such iconic properties like Gidleigh Park, the fear is that they will ruin them. Mr Brownsword has nurtured & invested heavily in the property as a whole, doubling the size of the estate and yet managing to stay true to the ethos & philosophies of the original owners. Just before I departed back into the grey April afternoon, I had a conversation with a senior member of staff about the blogged review from the ‘Tedious Twosome’. He echoed a lot of my own personal thoughts, which these people had clearly missed. The staff are better than good at Gidleigh, they excel in what they do. Why? Because they care and take everything personally (including criticism), they have great leadership; if you look across the board of senior staff, the vast majority, if not all have spent long stints at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, a better training ground you will not find.
As a final word, I’d like to congratulate Mr Caines on the new addition to his family. Unfortunately I was not able to see him personally the day we visited, as he was on paternity leave, but I can confirm that his high standards and attention to detail do not falter in his absence.