From the customer's point of view, you might be getting the guest chef's recipes, but you're in the dining room, which isn't the guest chef's dining room, the staff aren't theirs, neither is the wine list, coffee machine etc. My point is, you're not getting the experience of going to the 'other' restaurant. So, for me, the guest chef has to be sufficiently far away that it would be a real trouble (and expense, because these nights are never cheap) to get to. Either that, or some element of competition or fun/theme that attracts me.
Little Bedwyn, between Marlborough and Newbury, is well over 200 miles from me, so a night at the Freemasons at Wiswell certainly wins on that score. It's still not the same as going to the Harrow at Little Bedwyn though. But a lot easier.
Roger Jones has held a Michelin star at The Harrow since 2007. But since Paul Heathcote hung up his apron, Michelin hasn't been able to draw its attention away from Northcote and the Box Tree, and they seem to be very reluctant to recognise the achievement of anywhere inbetween. Other guides largely follow suit. Certainly the Freemasons at Wiswell must be edging close to a star, but for this one night there was one star in residence.
One glance at the menu and I tried to tweet a picture saying, "Yes, that is going to do very nicely." But the signal in Wiswell is too bad to do that.
But before that, there were a couple of canapés to deal with. First came a ball of tuna sashimi filled with a wasabi-flavoured cream cheese on a shiso leaf. For me, I thought it was marginally too big, and could have coped with a little less of the filling: it was quite difficult to bite in two elegantly, but too big to pop in the mouth whole. The filling was, however, jolly good: like Boursin that's been on its holidays to Japan and wishes it hadn't come back. Not sure if this was Roger Jones' canapé, or whether host, Steve Smith had done both canapés.
|Steve Smith's foie gras hot dog|
|Cured and marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices|
The next dish was Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel. Another really terrific dish.
|Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel|
A slice of a small torchon of foie gras was the filling in a salted caramel macaroon, which initially seemed to be more of a counterpoint than an accompaniment. But when combined with the reduced PX sherry dressing and the fresh (and massive) Wiltshire truffle that was liberally grated over half the plate at the table, it was really tied into the dish as a whole. The menu also mentioned crisps, but neither of us could find anything on the plate that could be called crisps.
The final savoury dish was grouse: Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates. Without a doubt (and leaving aside proper whole roast grouse with the traditional trimmings) this is the finest grouse dish of the last couple of years. The breast was beautifully cooked and had a good flavour, without being excessively gamey. The grouse bon bon was almost worth the trip on its own: a really good combination of grouse, black pudding, foie gras, chorizo and raisins. A slightly odd combination maybe, and it would be easy to sigh at the use of the now ubiquitous chorizo, but there's no doubt it that really worked. I could have eaten lots of these grouse bons bons.
When we initially read through the menu, we also wondered what on earth was the point of adding dates to parsnip purée. But by golly, it's good and I'll certainly be trying that one myself. Though it did rather underline Roger Jones' apparent love of having something a bit sweet on most dishes.
|Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates|
|The interior of the foie gras bon bon|
Dessert was a plate of blackberry things: blackberry parfait, a blackberry jaffa cake, a blackberry and champagne chocolate truffle and a distinctly moreish blackberry sorbet. All the elements were spot on. The chocolate truffle (in the background on the photograph) was momentarily challenging as everyone worked out how to eat it (cue the sound of a lot of spoons crashing onto the plates across the restaurant as everyone tried to cut it vertically), but once you went in horizontally, you found a remarkably thin, well-tempered chocolate shell filled with a ganache that tasted of what it was meant to. Even if it perhaps wasn't the most visually appealing element, he blackberry jaffa cake seemed rather inspired to me: clearly a jaffa cake, adding a bit of weight to the dessert with its sponge. A very nicely balanced dessert.
According to the menu there are three different Welsh and English cheeses in it, along with fish (which we identified as anchovy), tamarind, ale and spices. All served on beer and truffle toast.
A very nice, 2011 The Opportunist Sauvignon-Riesling blend was a beautiful wine, excellent with the lobster.
2011 Sherwood Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Waipara Valley was not a wine to my taste, tooth-achingly young, and reminding me of Vimto-flavoured boiled sweets with added sherbert. It did not, we thought, go particularly well with the venison either.
2009 Painted Wolf Madach from Stellenbosch (a pinotage dominant blend with grenache, syrah, mourvedre and a bit of merlot) was also far too young really, but was a very good wine that worked extremely well with the grouse dish.
The All Saints Rutherglen Muscat served with the blackberry dessert avoided being cloying with some good acidity, and I thought the coffee and berry flavours worked well with the dessert.
A champagne flute of Wiswell Brew (a light session ale) was fine with the Welsh Rarebit, but felt a bit of a cop out, as surely there must be something on the Freemasons wine list that would have worked without risking mixing grain and grape. I'm thinking of a nice palo cortado.