Alistair Scott endures excellence at Gidleigh Park Manor in the middle of rural Dartmoor, but wonders if international standards are always the right yardstick in the hospitality industry.
Dartmoor has a schizophrenic history. A patch of stunning moorland perched in the bottom left-hand corner of England with little topsoil, for many years it was a gulag for tin miners, prisoners of war, masochistic farmers and stubborn ponies.
Over recent years, as industry and agriculture declined, the villages have been taken over by tea-shops and barn conversions and for many months of the year, your tourist is the staple crop.
In the middle of the moor lies Gidleigh Park, a lovely hotel with a famed chef and impeccable service where a tasting menu over a long lunch on a hot sunny day was truly impressive. And yet…and yet…
Gidleigh Park lies some way from civilisation at the end of a typical winding track – drivers on Dartmoor need to be confident users of the reverse gear as livestock or tractors often block the lanes. The smooth lawns and gardens lead to a well-set up Tudorbethan style manor house.
Unlike many upmarket eateries around the country, where heritage houses have been turned into a “country house hotel experience”, this house was built about a hundred years ago by an Australian sheep farmer seeking respectability. (With an Australian wife, I can say these things). The setting is pretty ancient though, with mossy walls, ancient chapels and in-bred locals aplenty.
A long terrace looking down across waterfall, lawns and shrubbery is an excellent place for a warm-up (or wind-down) before the meal and the staff, many of whom are from continental Europe, are alert, friendly and efficient with menus and drinks swiftly in place. They happily helped our over-sized dog into a very comfortable kennel – it was not their fault she eventually got lonely and delivered her own rendition of the Hound of the Baskervilles (the novel based not far from here).
A couple of delicious amuse-bouche – peas and broad bean puree with parmesan flake and a salt cod in chorizo sauce nibble – kept us happy while we went through the menus. Any hopes that my wife would choose the cheaper set menu were dashed once she saw that the Signature Tasting Menu was also available at lunchtime. So the assault on the wallet began.
The meal itself was served in fairly formal wood-panelled dining rooms facing out over the gardens – the rooms are not large, perhaps 4-5 tables in each, so nicely intimate, which I suspect is useful when the weather turns bleak.
The clientele for this August weekday lunch session included a couple of informal business lunch groups, an 18 year birthday celebration and assorted couples. One guest apparently arrived by helicopter, but surely no-one’s penis is that small?
Home made breads – sun-dried tomato and olive and something with honey – kept the kids quiet for several minutes. The flavours of the early courses – salad of lobster with citrus notes and curry and lovely foie gras terrine – were particularly delicate with home-grown herbs adding nice grace notes to each dish. The children’s starter was richer fare – goats cheese terrine with beetroot jelly – and perhaps my jaded palate marginally preferred these fuller flavours.
Later courses, and they were many, were more robust. Local salt cod with crab, chorizo and samphire (a crunchy asparagus-like sea vegetable) was zippy and the duckling with cabbage, garlic and spices was all rich dark flavours. A nice piece of well hung beef with delicious melting smokey bone marrow closed the main courses on the tasting menu.
Meanwhile the children had continued their flavoursome romp with gnocchi with quails eggs and wild mushrooms – lovely slippery soft textures on a plate, then excellent and properly sized salmon and lamb main courses with summer vegetables.
The quality of the produce was consistently high and the herbs and veg mainly come from the large kitchen garden to the side of the main house.
Onward, ever onward…English cheeses, nicely weighted towards my preference for the soft and creamy rather than dry and crumbly – my wife got a very different selection matching her more austere tastes.
An excitingly presented raspberry soup with a pastry bridge balanced across it was a triumph. Now sadly at this point there was a major blip – caused not by the kitchen but by the dog, who was unhappy in her quarters. As I went to rescue the baying hound, one of my daughters decided to polish off my plate of apricot based desserts. She reassures me it was splendid but, dear reader, I cannot verify this independently.
A final touch, petit fours – but not as we know them. Instead, three perfect pots of pleasure – chocolate, lemon and something flowery – which I managed to wrestle from the children in time. An unusual and clever end to the meal; back in the sunshine on the terrace.
The Gidleigh Park wine list has a long history. It was once famed as a source of excellent and competitively priced old vintages. After a change of ownership a few years ago, the impression is that the quality of the list remains but pricing is no longer so generous. I would suggest anyone heading to the restaurant download and research the list beforehand as it takes a fair bit of reading – three pages of white Burgundies, a page of Alsace and five of red Bourdeaux.
There is a nice touch of a couple sheets of organic wines for the fastidious alcoholic tree-hugger and a page of wines by the glass. From this we enjoyed a nice 2010 Sancerre, Domaine Henri Bourgeois, La Vigne Blanche and the 2007 Rosso di Montalcino, San Polino, went well with the main courses. The 2009 Burgenland Zweigelt & Blaufränkisch, Gut Oggau, Atanasius was less convincing, tasting of blood and minerals and a bit too pungent for some of the food.
So there we are, sated, having enjoyed lots of excellent dishes in a lovely setting. But looking back, I kept feeling something was missing, but it took me a while to pin down. This is an international level outfit, a member of the Relais et Chateau network, with pleasant, polished international staff and Swiss levels of hospitality and efficiency. It reminded me in some ways of Gravetye Manor, south of London, which also delivers excellent food and a polished service in a fairly formal, wood-paneled setting.
And perhaps that’s the basis of my little quibble. We were in the middle of Dartmoor and, apart from the sourcing of the food, I felt this was more of an international experience rather than one owing much to its location (the helicopter didn’t help).…was there much to distinguish this place from an excellent establishment nearer London, or on the Continent itself?
This may seem slightly unfair but think for a moment of the great value we place on meals in restaurants we find on holiday, down an alleyway, in a humble trattoria or pension, ‘where the natives eat’, where the chef is incomprehensible and the food uncompromisingly local.
In London, foodies rush to Italian or Spanish restaurants which seem ‘authentic’ versions of their homeland. We seem to prize highly some sense of ‘terroir’ in our restaurant experience.
Don’t get me wrong, Gidleigh Park is a lovely place – perhaps what I was missing were a few Devon accents and a deeper sense of being lost on Dartmoor.