10 June 2015
One of the first things we noticed when having our aperitifs in the bar was an indicator of the kind of unschooled service we would not expect in a Relais et Chateaux establishment and which was unfortunately repeated in one form or another throughout the evening and at breakfast the following morning. Our fizz was inexpertly poured, resulting in drips down the outside of my wife's glass. No attempt was made to remove them. Although the wine flight looked reasonable, my eye was caught by one of the binends in the wine list, a Chapoutier Condrieu which would go very nicely with four of the first five dishes, we opted for that and a glass of Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir for the lamb. Much to our surprise when we were shown to our table we saw that the wine had been decanted, without any reference to us as to our preference. It was clear that, having a "pre-starter" and the first course to come before starting on the Condrieu, and then a further three courses to be covered, the wine risked reaching an inappropriate temperature, so, to the evident and uncalled for disapproval of the wine waiter, we asked for the decanter to be put on ice. The so-called pre-starter was cleverly designed to tickle the tastebuds and please the eye with its good local goat's cheese mousse, pickled beetroot and beet ice cream topped wirh red-veined sorrel. Then came some lovely seared Angus beef with sensational roasted marrowbone, salsify done three ways, pickled, deep-fried and puréed, and trendy microherbs for extra tones of taste and colour. It was a generous portion for a starter, which worried us about our capacity for the rest of the menu. Domes filled with smoke are a bit passé, but the dehydrated mushrooms, duck liver parfait, morels and deliciously pungent shijimi made us forget the unnecessary theatrics very quickly. Decent crab followed with the interesting support of scallop roe in a cigar, fennel crisp, edible charcoal, dehydrated horseradish and pickled fennel, which actually added up to a dish that didn't really seem to know where it was going. The next course was also quite complicated but it worked better - sheep's milk ricotta with a gazpacho-style garlic and bread soup accompanied by acidulated tomatoes covering the whole range of tastes from sweet to sharp, tomato jelly, Tabasco pickled cucumber which remained remarkably mild, and the ubiquitous micro-herbs which seem to be a sine qua non for restaurants these days. For us char-grilling does no favours to halibut, a fish that needs no tinkering, and the Hollandaise sauce was then almost guaranteed to neutralise the taste of the fish, which was also served with trendy scorched little gem and sliced asparagus. The lamb cutlet that came next was rather better than some but suffered slightly from underseasoning, something that did not apply to the excellent lamb belly, and the Hispi cabbage was good; however, we did have doubts about the bitter turnip and the undercooked spring onion among the spring veg as well as the lamb crackling. The dessert struck us as having lost its way slightly with the dominant basil cream needing careful combining with the mango and blueberries, and the dish was only saved by the super coconut choc ice. Overall, perhaps a bit more focus on the macro and less on the micro would be of benefit. Typically, neither of the two Northcote "names" were in the kitchen for completely different reasons, but, with the provisos mentioned above, senior sous-chef Kirk Haworth did fill the gap competently.