Tuesday 13 May 2014

Hambleton Hall, Rutland

Hambleton Hall is a very fine country house hotel on the shore of Rutland Water near Oakham.  I have been occasionally over the thirty odd years since Tim Hart opened it.  The number of visits have been restricted both by its distance from my usual stamping grounds and the fact that it comes with a price tag to match the luxury setting, at least if you want to stay over: if you're in the area, they have some good value lunch deals.

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.
The lounge
Hambleton Hall has held a Michelin star since 1982 and the kitchens have been under the control of head chef Aaron Patterson since 1992 (I actually ate there in his first week as head chef!).  The restaurant is classically and formally decorated with decent sized, well-spaced tables, with all the quality napery, cutlery and crockery you'd expect. Service is excellent, if formal.  Lighting is a little subdued, so apologies to both readers and Aaron Patterson for the less than perfect photographs.  Aaron Patterson's food fits well in this setting: there's a solid classical foundation with a few modern twists.  We ate over two nights and our overall impression was of a little inconsistency, with some dishes being truly excellent, while others just fell a little short.

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)
As well as a £75 5/6 course tasting menu, there's a three course à la carte for £65, with a separate "gourmet corner" of a starter, main and dessert with supplements.  There's also an absolutely fabulous wine list with prices that really aren't that gouge-y, especially for the class of establishment.  We had a delicious, maturing 2008 Le Soula and an equally excellent JJ Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett from 2009.

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.
Amuse bouche
A bouillabaisse terrine was excellent. It looked picture perfect, had great flavours, reminiscent of a bouillabaisse, but with a much more elevated set of prime ingredients: lobster, tuna and hake, all of which were cooked perfectly. Really extremely impressive.
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
Another excellent starter came from the tasting menu.  No eyebrow was raised or anything when we asked if we could have the red mullet with blood orange and almond, a dish which appeared only on the tasting menu.  Really excellent fish, perfectly cooked, and I adored the orange and almond accompaniments which almost lent it a slightly Moorish feel.

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
Fortunately an Assiette of Rabbit restored our faith in Aaron Patterson's abilities.  This really was a stunning, complex dish, with a sauce lightly favoured with licorice, that also made the Prüm riesling really sing in my view.  The loin was wrapped in (I think) a light rabbit mousse; the rack roasted with a herb crumb; a rich, braised leg, served with a pearly barley risotto and that excellent licorice sauce.  Really beautiful dish, showing off the kitchen's skills. Perfectly seasoned in all elements too.

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
A Brillat-Savarin tart seemed to be in a different league: clean, and focused. A nice idea well executed, though even here the shot glass had to reappear (was it a celery granita & foam??).
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.


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