The Royal Clarence in Exeter was Michael Caines’ first excursion into the mid hotel market; now of course there is the whole Abode brand reaching from Glasgow to Canterbury & Exeter, with Chelsea and Manchester in between. It’s been a tough lesson for the two Michelin starred chef, as this area of hotels is a crowded & competitive arena. This impacted on the Glasgow property, with the main restaurant shutting its doors in May 2011. Needless to say Abode Exeter will probably always be Mr Caines’ baby; he’s a local chap and of course still cooks on a regular basis at Gidleigh Park in Chagford, just 22 miles away.
I’ve eaten at The Clarence before, a number of years ago and definitely in the pre-blog era. I remember thinking to myself at the time how good it was, if a trifle expensive. But the world has moved on; we’ve endured a double dip recession and value for money, in whatever eatery you frequent now has to be key to survival. So when I heard earlier this year, that the long serving Head chef of Gidleigh Park was leaving, to steer the ship of Abode Exeter, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to see how things had evolved.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit naughty; normally I’d book a table in advance, but as there was only me & I was doing some shopping in Exeter anyway; I thought I’d chance it. I duly turned up in reception on the dot of noon to inquire if they had an available table for lunch. Not a problem, I was guided through to the the restaurant by a very pleasant member of staff into an expanse of polished dark woods, white linen and glinting shiny cutlery. The danger of dining on your own is that you can become bored in between courses; ear wigging becomes a sport, as does guessing what each of your dining neighbours may do for a living etc. To combat this, I brought my notes for the ‘Worlds 50 Best‘ post to polish up, before actually writing out the entry properly.
After being shown to my table I was given the menu, there are a couple of options:
- Lunch, 2courses and £14.50 & 3courses at £19.50
- A La Carte, starters around £10, mains around £20+ and desserts £10
- Weekly changing Tasting menu, seven courses plus coffee & petit fours for £60 plus £36 for the matching wines.
The sheer value for money which appears to be on offer with the lunch menu is just staggering, and so my choice was made.
At £1.50 on the menu, many will baulk at paying the price, but don’t. The breads are excellent examples of each of their various types.
There was a slice from a sundried tomato loaf which was packed with the intensity of the dried fruit, with smokey under tones; a individual piccolo white roll & a small bun, which when cracked open through the wafer thin crust, revealed a light fluffy grey/blue interior. Although the taste was more akin to a traditional white roll, I just had to admire the levels of technique to achieve bread like this.
In my time I’ve seen & eaten enough terrines to know a good one, which has been made with skilled hands; & the ones which have been thrown together in hast and then had any remaining life pressed out of them under 20kilos of butter in the fridge overnight. At The Clarence however, the chicken terrine is a delight. The meat is moist, flavoursome and sits nestling in a clear jelly; which adds a level of delicacy to the dish. One of the things that drew me to ordering it was the mentioned ‘egg yolk vinaigrette’; intriguing is the best adjective to describe this. More of a dressing/purée than what I would call a vinaigrette, but hey, each to their own. The accompanying asparagus salad would be a loose interpretation, yet it was so exacting in execution: sweet pea shoots; asparagus spears in various forms; the Hansel & Gretel trail of cooked parmesan crumbs adding a much needed texture. An excellent dish; with balances of textures, seasonings, acidity, seasonality and colour; combined with deft touches in the execution.
There is a school of thought that:
What grows together, goes together
Braised shoulder of Lamb, wild garlic purée, confit tomatoes and tapenade jus for main should have been a resounding success then. Well, unlike the constituent parts it was a bit, meh, so to speak. The braised Lamb was: juicy; well seasoned; tender; it paired well with either the wild garlic purée or the confit tomatoes, but not all three together. The confit tomatoes were more of a demi sec or semi dried affair, rather than the confit versions I’d either done myself or eaten elsewhere. This just served to intensify the acidity which wasn’t really required to cut through any level of fat or richness that might have been present. Coupled with the fact that the plate was far too hot, so it reduced the tapenade jus on the plate making it something akin to licking a postage stamp, was making it some what of a let down.
The side order of vegetables at £3.50 are a bug bear of mine. I mean really, just look at the picture below & tell me that it’s enough as a main course portion? It just isn’t, so why not adjust the menu pricing accordingly & have done with it? Whilst the elements individually were all fine, combined they just didn’t gel; just because it’s the current trend to forage & the season for wild garlic, it doesn’t go with everything. Maybe fondant potato or celeriac would have been better choices, it wasn’t hideous by any stretch of the imagination, but after such a promising starter, the main course failed to deliver.
There is a lot to be said for the way chefs do crème brûlée. There is the classical cook in a ramekin & then glaze, then there is the more refined freestanding version. It’s a difficult balancing trick to do the latter; too many eggs and the end result will be eggy & too hard. Alternatively, have a lack of eggs and the mix wont set, defeating the object of the exercise.
The pastry team at The Royal Clarence have got the balance spot on; each brûlée is cooked in a ring and thus give that slight wobble in the center, which is desirable in cooked custards. Partnering the creme brûlée was the modern classic; rhubarb, in various forms: Poached; puréed; jellied & frozen (in the shape of sorbet). All added differing levels of sweetness and acidity; both of which cut through the richness of vanilla scented custard. After the slight disappointment of the main course, the creme brûlée put the meal back on track to the more exacting standards I’d come to expect from a Michael Caines establishment.
After a fine double espresso & a selection of petit fours: a mini gateau opera (one of my personal favourite desserts) & a pâte du fruit, came the time of reckoning. There’s now doubting that on the surface of it £19.50 for 3courses of food at this aspirational standard is incredible value for money. But the elephant in the room is the little extras that come at a price, the £3.50 vegetables are a point in case, just add them to the main course price & supply a more appropriate garnish, rather than just generic vegetables.
Service is a well oiled machine, easily striking the difficult balance between informal yet not over friendly; and professional. I wouldn’t want this to give you the impression that the staff are off-handish or aloof, they aren’t. Infact, as I watched during the course of service they measured each table perfectly in terms of interacting with the guests: the two men having a business meeting, or the table of four having a family lunch together, each received different yet professional service. As with Gidleigh Park, the property most synonymous with the Mr Caines, the front house completes the package making the meal a more harmonious affair, in contrasted to the juxatposed efforts in quite a few hotel restaurants.
So to the bill. When people say it’s the little things that mount up,they aren’t kidding:
3Courses @ £19.50
Double espresso & petits fours £2.95
Seasonal vegetables £3.50
Basket of bread £1.50
Charitable donation 50pence
Service charge @12%
On the surface of it £19.50 for 3 courses is great value for money, but then start adding on half a bottle of wine plus all the extras above and you’ve breached £50. Which isn’t particularly great, there are wine offerings by the glass or you could stick to tap water which is also offered, but why would you want to? And here in lies the problem, the two Michelin starred Le Gavroche from the Roux dynasty in London, has a lunch menu. For £52.60 of your hard earned cash you’ll receive:
- Amuse bouche (pre starter)
- Coffee & petits fours
- Bottle of water
- ½ Bottle of wine (per person)
This offer isn’t just a one off, the business lunch at Le Gavroche has been in place for years & this is the fundamental problem that places like Abode Exeter face. I had a good meal, there’s no doubting that, great? No, & would I go again? Yes, probably; but the aforementioned elephant in the room has to be addressed for this to be a more regular visit for me than once every 6 years.