15 March 2016
Funny one, Lucknam Park. It's opulence all the way from the endless leafy drive to the swathes of ornate regalia within. Cripes, there’s even a helipad. And while I wasn’t about to pocket the family silver, I did panic as to whether I’d last without a hotline to Debrett’s. We spied prize steeds cantering around the grounds as we were greeted, and half expected to see Russell Brand romping past while bleating on about the 1%.
There's no bar, so drinks are taken in the 'lounge' beneath the disapproving glare of aristocratic portraits. (I'll level with you; we were spooked, and thoroughly out-poshed). We knocked back disappointing cocktails while a small child – perhaps weaned on the tears of ‘the Help’ – paraded round the room and caused a nuisance. It was a peculiar environment. We were relieved to finally welcome amuse bouches by way of distraction, particularly as they were gorgeous. Not the most inventive, but clearly executed by a pro.
The restaurant itself – a former ballroom – is no less flamboyant in style but the mood was disconcertingly hushed, making the wait for an aperitif awkward. Menus are only fleetingly available to make the most of the kitchen garden, so I won’t share a blow-by-blow account. Suffice to say that we visited at the height of game season, and I plumped for grouse: a perfectly-cooked bird that was intensely pigeony, pokey and iron-rich. (Turns out I don't like grouse - at all - but that's no reflection on Michelin-starred chef, Hywel Jones; the plate was a glorious assortment of hedgerow delights, with elements assembled to be visually stunning and - primarily – combine in the mouth very well indeed). Foie gras featured heavily (much to my tutting), while fish dishes were cooked with elegance and a lightness of touch. Unusually for my partner and I, dessert proved the winning course, with a combination of roast pear, nutty financier and sauternes ice cream causing a tussle for the last bite. When faced with the cheese trolley, we made haste for the pongiest goat's cheese. It had more than a whiff of the farmyard about it, but became downright sexy when drizzled with truffled honey.
Our sommelier did a great job, recommending exquisite wine flights and treading an expert line between chattiness and discretion. In fact, all staff seemed eager to please with no sliminess or tip-baiting, but I couldn't describe service as slick, nor modern. Our flurry of waiters and waitresses were enormously amiable but fell short of five-star efficiency due to a handful of repeated requests and lengthy waits. I struggle to believe this boiled down to an overburdened kitchen as it remained eerily quiet, even for a Wednesday night. Perhaps it stems from the building's age and unwieldy layout, conceived long before clever dicks went all Grand Designs on every commercial space.
Our lasting impression? We found the mood rather staid and unnerving. Rather than being wowed by spectacle, the other-worldly pomp proved a distraction from the procession of outstanding cordon bleu cooking. If you’re at home rubbing shoulders with the blue blooded or have an inner Llewellyn-Bowen that revels in draped organza and finery, you’ll love it; if not, consider somewhere less stuffy for a splurge.