My last visit to Hambleton Hall was in 2009 when I joined a group of friends in a private dining room for an evening looking at wines from the 1989 vintage. At such events, the food often takes second place, but the quality and finesse of the food and its cooking kept it very much in the foreground. So when I learned I was going to be treated (not by anyone related to the hotel, I hasten to add - everything was paid for) to a couple of nights at Hambleton Hall earlier this year, it was certainly something to look forward to.
The hotel side is as you would expect: everything is in elegant order, staff manage to appear as if by magic whenever you need something, fires are lit, cushions are plumped. But it's more of a comfortable place, than a grand place. Outside there are a croquet lawn, a small swimming pool, well kept gardens and, I think, a tennis court. You could easily imagine a Noël Coward play or a Poirot novel set here.
|The view over the garden to Rutland Water|
Our bedrooms had the sloping ceilings of the eaves, such that in my room at least there was no way you could take a shower as there wasn't room to stand upright in the bath, which in real luxury style seemed big enough to hold half of Rutland Water: a bath designed for long soaks and total immersion. Bliss. Though it's worth noting that my room was a "standard" room up the back stairs (you could almost see where, on the ground floor corridor, the green baize door would have been): the bedrooms in the "family" half of the house may be grander. Beds have the really high quality sheets you would expect. Housekeeping is of the highest order.
Downstairs there is just one lounge, plus some seating in the entrance hall and a relatively cosy bar. The lounge tends a little too much to hushed conversation and I felt that the bar was more relaxing.
Dinner starts with drinks in the lounge or the bar, with canapés. On the first night, the canapés were a "fig bubble" topped with a little shaved ham, deep-fried goujons of bream with a saffron mayonnaise and some delightful gougères. On the second night, the real standout of the three canapés were the little beetroot macarons.
|Canapés (day 1)|
|Canapés (day 2)|
Once at the table, the meal starts with a demitasse of good but ultimately forgettable soup - forgettable in the sense that while I remember it was French onion soup one night and both had some good texture, I've completely forgotten what the other was.
|Bouillabaisse Terrine with a saffron dressing|
Similarly, a lasagne of of black Perigord truffle, combining truffle, artichokes and a perfect chicken mousse, was a stunning starter and there were no regrets about the £6.50 supplement.
|Lasagne of Black Perigord Truffle|
A fillet of beef was decent enough, nicely cooked as requested and served with slow cooked Jacob's ladder and watercress and wasabi purée. But as a dish, it felt much safer and lacked impact both visually and on the palate. The wasabi in particular was much more muted than it needed to be.
A roast duck breast was again perfectly cooked: beautifully tender and a good flavour, served with tamarillo that worked well with the duck. A cassoulet of duck, apparently flavoured with fresh turmeric, was served separately. The confit duck leg was excellent, and it was great to see the duck heart so prominent. But the cassoulet itself was a let down: I found the beans just too undercooked, to the point that I asked for it to be taken back to the kitchen so that the chef could check it was how he expected it. The answer came back that that was how Aaron Patterson wanted to serve the beans. Fair enough. I didn't like it though: the not-quite-crunch of the beans was not a texture I appreciated and, it seemed to me, detracted from what should be a quintessentially comforting dish.
|Roast Great Dalby duck with tamarillo purée|
|Duck cassoulet flavoured with fresh turmeric|
|Assiette of rabbit with pearl barley risotto & liquorice flavoured sauce|
A pre-dessert of a sort of granita comes in a shot glass. Fennel, orange and rhubarb one night; "taste of mojito" the next. Refreshing, and just a taste. For me the fennel, orange and rhubarb was very much the superior.
|Fennel, orange and rhubarb pre-dessert|
|"Taste of Mojito" pre-dessert|
Those shot glasses quickly reappear with dessert proper. The three desserts we had were all fine, with lots of technique, but if there were one area where Hambleton Hall might look to improve the menus, I would respectfully suggest that it would be desserts. There was nothing wrong with any of them, but (with the exception of the Brillat-Savarin tart) there just seemed to be a little too much effort and too much technique which rather minimised the impact of the named main ingredients. The other way to look at it is, I suppose, that the pastry section likes doing very refined desserts. This was particularly the case with a dish of "Tastes of Lemon & Violet" which just seemed to miss the point somehow. Terrine of Rhubarb was better, but for me there was just a bit too much going on on the plate, to the point that it was the lime leaf ice cream that really stood out for me.
|Terrine of Rhubarb with lime leaf flavoured ice cream|
|Brillat-Savarin Tart with figs, walnuts & grapes|
|Detail of the Brillat-Savarin tart|
Breakfasts were very good, though curiously more generous on the second day. The breads were excellent, as you would expect given that the brilliant Hambleton Bakery is in the same ownership. The small muffins in particular merit particular mention (I bought lots from the Bakery to stock my freezer), and played no small part in having some jolly good Eggs Benedict on the second day.
We enjoyed some excellent food at Hambleton Hall, as you would hope. It is after all, what one beer company once called reassuringly expensive. If you choose well, it's no doubt not merely worth it, but also good value, especially as portion size is far from skimpy. If that excellence could be transferred to all dishes, then Michelin's one star would start to seem a bit mean.