Gravetye Manor Hotel and Restaurant
A treat for a special, deeply loved person. And a poignant odd number at our table for this meal. Just a month before this her husband, my step-father, had passed away.
Here are the words which will greet you as you consider the menu.
The success of that mission statement was abundantly obvious throughout our entire meal. We suppressed our appreciation to below Meg Ryan’s levels at Katz's Delicatessen. None of the other diners would have paid us much heed anyway... every one of them was already enjoying what we were having.
My previously expressed fear that Gravetye might suffer by comparison with a favourite Cheltenham restaurant evaporated and disappeared with the arrival of so many ingredients given masterly treatment, releasing flavours which still linger in the memory.
That's a wrap for all you faint-hearted readers. This restaurant is special. All you must do now is to reserve a table to enjoy the glorious quality of eating which Gravetye offers.
For the rest of you (my faithful masochists!) here is my expanded, more detailed version of events.
Sparkling Wine - Bloomsbury, Ridgeview Estate, Sussex, England 2014
A birthday demands a little fizz and we were very close to one of the English vineyards which confounds devotees of champagne by being every bit as good as the French product. We really didn't need Downing Street's backing to tell us we'd made the right choice. This was celebration in a glass. Assorted nuts had been given lovely roasting and seasoning by the kitchen. Olives, too often a casual, almost ignored, extra were so fruity and mellow that they managed to distract me from my menu choices for a while.
A carrot velouté was delicate, refined and rich all at the same time. It was sent from the kitchen to cleverly prepare us for much further delight.
Gravetye Garden Salad - confit hen’s yolk, young vegetables, crisp brassicas and spring flowers
Here was one decision which I had made before coming. After our meal we saw head gardener Tom Coward walk through the lounge as we drank coffee. I really should have leapt up and given thanks to him and his team for producing so many of the elements of our meal. This salad can be seen in preparation here. It exudes the loving care which has been given to each part from plant seed to plate, by gardener and chef. Dressing was restrained but the confit yolk was firmer than I had expected. This turned out to be perfect. A rich emulsion was preferable to a wetter liquid coating. A tiny orange flower (I'm guessing Marigold) joined with the fresh, crisp greenery and said, "I am Spring... eat me!" Much to my delight, Mrs Cheoff chose and enjoyed the same.
Seared Orkney Scallops - miso glaze, baby radish, sesame and seaweed cracker
The birthday girl's starter choice was expected. Mum likes her scallops. She liked these better than any scallops she has ever had.
Roasted Breast and Confit Thigh of Guinea Fowl - variations of leek, pak choi, potato pressing and mead sauce
Mum described her guinea fowl as the best she has ever been served. The gentle attack from allium and lightly treated greens was perfectly balanced by the soft sweetness of meat and mead.
Saddle and Shoulder of Southdown Hogget - potato wrapped haggis, purple sprouting broccoli, mint jellies and lamb sauce
To no-one’s surprise, Mrs. Cheoff chose the lamb. One sticking point... “I can always leave the haggis,” she said. After a lifetime’s avoidance of the noble Burn’s Night staple, my wife’s conversion to and delectation of that element was quite a coup for the kitchen. I was lucky to be offered a tiny taste of it. I politely trusted Mrs C’s dreamy statement that hogget had been made a star turn without asking for a sneaky sample of that as well.
Newhaven Landed Turbot - chicken wings, Jerusalem artichoke, braised lettuce and lovage
My turbot was finished so perfectly but it still struggled for top billing. Crunchy, smoky artichoke skins and softer vibrant greens, including lovage with its celery hints, were great. The 'gravy' was an insistent, rich concentration of all the goodness that is found on the base of roasting dishes. But on either side of the fish were two nuggets (discard any thought whatsoever of meals which can be 'super-sized' elsewhere) of wing meat. Bearing the stigmata of recently removed skewers, they just about stole the show. It was like eating the tastiest Sunday roast dinner in the knowledge that a work-free Bank Holiday would follow. The flavours hit and matched the length of finish found in the finest wines.
Wine - Ventoux, Domaine de Fondrèche 2014
I had already made a good choice with the 'fizz'. We have been lucky enough to enjoy the Domaine de Fondreche rouge where it is produced, in the shadow of Mont Ventoux. Seeing their white on the lists at Gravetye was an interesting proposition. Head Sommelier, Alexis Jamin, simply confirmed my choice. He thought it would complement the hogget particularly well. Alexis proved to be the perfect advisor. At half my age and already possessing more knowledge than I will ever have, he managed to massage my ego and cleverly made me feel as if I knew what I was talking about. After more or less insisting that Mum should try the Banyuls with her chocolate, I was all tuckered out on the vine suggestions. Alexis, of course, stepped in to save my fluster with two more lovely dessert wines.
Caramelised White Chocolate Mousse - variations of apple, cinnamon and treacle gel
with Sauternes, Château Villefranche, France 2013
Guanaja Bitter Sweet Chocolate Bar - marmalade on toast ice cream and cocoa nibs
with Banyuls ‘Cirera, Domaine Madeloc, Côte Du Roussillon, France 2010
Mum and Mrs Cheoff’s desserts belied the restaurant's assertion that presentation is unimportant. They were beautifully prepared but still heavily underlined that dominant focus on flavour. Gels, sorbets and tuiles all added lovely flavour, temperature and texture notes.
How great that hopes for Mum's birthday meal had been met and totally exceeded... she deserves nothing less.
Roasted Acorn Crème Brûlée - thyme, hazelnut and parsnip cake
with Coteaux du Layon ‘Passerillé’, Philippe Delesveaux France 2014
My dessert should have been a revelation. But, hey, I have roasted acorns for panna cotta and used parsnips in pre-desserts. The crème brûlée was lightly nutty and might have been given the appellation ‘Burnt English Cream’. That would have fitted better with its thin crust of Bonfire Toffee. Once again, perfectly judged bitterness to undercut sweetness from other elements. The cake can be described when I’ve come up with an alternative for ‘perfect’ in my thesaurus. Light and airy and refined as the dining space surrounding us. Dabs of sweetness from purées and parsnip tuiles completed the plate and made it crystal clear that vegetables, used sympathetically, deserve a place right at the end of a triumphant meal. OK, let's rewrite that opening sentence for this paragraph…
My dessert was a revelation.
Chef Blogg was visible too. I smiled but did not interrupt as I passed him in conversation at the stair well. Leading his team into such elevated territory after less than three years is a wonderful achievement. I submitted a short tweet after we returned home referring to 'indelible memories' of such a fine lunch. There was a polite response from their social media arm, showing how much of the traditional and formal surface appearance at Gravetye is already updating and developing itself.
But in all the joy of such a successful visit there was one more 'wonderful achievement' which puts all into perspective. Three days after the meal our chef made this announcement on Twitter. Let's face it, the importance of his few words are worth a thousand of mine for this review. I still repeat my congratulations to all at Gravetye for a wonderful meal but I'll finish by congratulating George on what could be his greatest creation outside the kitchen.