24 October 2016
We had experienced Michael Wignall’s cooking at Pennyhill Park as well as that of Michael Caines here, both two stars but rather different styles. Our impression of the former had been somewhat coloured by the unfortunate dining room and the substandard front of house staff, which we felt let the chef down, especially when the majority of the dishes in our ten-course tasting menu had been of an outstanding finesse, expertly balancing tastes and textures and beautifully presented on the plate, and employing ingredients, some familiar and some not, in adventurous combinations, so it was that we approached this dinner in these luxurious surroundings with great expectations. It was immediately clear that the staff were a cut above those at Pennyhill Park and, in a welcome break from most restaurants, it was possible to have a wine flight with 75ml glasses to accompany the tasting menu. There were no nibbles, but the amuses-bouche set the standard for the rest of the meal with a collective of treats comprising trout roe, cubes of mild cucumber and salmon, and then three crackers, all different, each one supporting a selection of delicate individual yet texturally interactive elements, all beautifully presented and carefully balanced. The 10 course Taste of Gidleigh menu looked on the face of it to be unbalanced, but as the meal went on it was clear that, as with everything that evening, a great deal of thought, more than a sprinkling of skill and a splash of imagination had produced a masterpiece of top-class cuisine. A startling mix of sea bass with finger lime, a nori cracker, a perfect amount of yuzu and gentle oyster was followed by some superbly juicy hare with just the right quantity of chocolate crumbs to produce the perfect match and accompanied by parsley, artichoke cream, lightly cooked parsnip, another notable taste element, ceps and a hint of pine. Venison before trout, with venison main on the menu? The puzzle was solved with appearance of a slice of home-cured beautifully tasty and tender venison “bresaola” as an integral part of a real picture of a dish with heritage carrots, baked and smoked, a background of trendy woodruff, beetroot, wonderful organic goat’s curd, carrot cream and parsley. One could almost be persuaded to become a vegetarian with a stand-out dish like this, and our judgement of the meat was that, after all, you wouldn’t find it that odd to have a slice of ham early on in the meal with pork as the main if it played a proper role in the composition of the starter. Back to fish - cured sea trout, perfectly lightly cooked and just marvellous with a surprising roast celery and beetroot cream and yet intensified with glazed octopus and an historic chicken and squid broth. Once again all the levels of taste and the textures were impeccably balanced. Cornish mussels served in and counterpointed with mild braised onion and elevated by coal powder with cabbage and especially a terrific sardine dressing. There was a choice of mains. It had to be the venison for me, and my wife chose the eternal favourite, turbot. We were now expecting perfection from every dish, and chef did not disappoint. The admirable fish was supported by some fresh, barely cooked, taste of the sea Mylor prawns along with Gidleigh Park Jerusalem artichokes, an umami boost from shiitake mushrooms in a seaweed tea, as well as English truffles and local greens. The venison was exemplary, an authentic taste of the game season with a special extra of brilliant sweetbreads and white truffles, girolles, baby watercress adding a touch of pepperiness and a savoury parsley and fermented garlic mix. Another competitor for dish of the evening! Before we tackled the desserts there was a semi-cheese course of variations of pumpkin with its seeds, Colston Basset mousse, and a striking pear and wet walnut duo. The look of the first dessert brought a smile to our faces the way it was amusingly put together on the plate - a blackberry ice ball, a superlative buttermilk rod, torched Gidleigh Park sweetcorn kernels, blackberries and blackberry panna cotta, and we were still smiling after devouring it. Next we had a pistachio micro-sponge with a lemon and bergamot set cream, the taste of which grew on the palate and fused with the liquorice ice cream. Finally, another runner in the top dish stakes - a bitter chocolate bomb filled with praliné parfait, some frozen yoghurt and caramel. Simple sounding, but at this level not easily achieved. We reckoned that this was well up with any of the best dining experiences we’ve had this year, and Gidleigh Park with Michael Wignall in the kitchen must now rank alongside any of the three-star venues. Chef was still in the kitchen right to the end of service, yet another example of the dedication a top chef should have.