After being on the road for almost three hours the ethos behind Pythouse Kitchen Garden becomes obvious. We are in Wiltshire, driving through the gentle valleys of Cranbourne Chase on our way to a long lunch. Signage warns of deer in the area, and indeed some of those can be seen distant on the grassland. A dead hare lays roadside, the size of a small fox, whilst a partridge is asking for the same demise by refusing to scuttle out of the way. This part of the world is serene; the clock ticks at half a pace slower, and life gently chugs rather than rushes to pass us by. It’s more green than a UN climate conference. By the time we arrive at the gates of the restaurant we totally understand why you would want to focus on what is available here. It feels like England’s garden.
From exiting the car we pass through the walled garden, into the shop, then turn sharply right into the conservatory. It’s a pretty space. Sloped roof, heavy wooden tables with legs sat on large rugs, and lit candles which brighten the fading Autumn light just enough. To the side of our table, out of the windows loomed with spider webs checking on our lunch from the cold sits the kitchen garden: their pantry and the focus for the restaurant. It’s from here that the majority of the menu is supplied. Bread and dips, followed by a protein cooked over fire, served with three side dishes which focus on what’s good from the garden right that minute, then dessert. Yours for £30. Add the nibbles at four quid each and you have a lot of food for £34 each. You may want to take that in again. £34. It is without question one of the best value meals to be had in the UK.
We start with a smorgasbord of starters, dips, and nibbles. Light and airy potato bread gets slathered in the carrot whip which is essentially roasted carrots blitzed-up with garlic. You’re right in thinking that you could probably do that at home, but your carrots have been around long enough to grow a beard, and these are so fresh and princely Will Smith has handed over the reins. The pickles of sauerkraut, silver skin onions, and chard stem, each rife with plenty of acidity and crunchy, are the ideal reset points for the nibbles that include a grilled trout belly which is smoky, beguiling and oily. There are rich and comforting bonbons of braised beef and barley and the genius of baby beets coated in black garlic which adds a brooding quality to the sweet veg. We both agree at this point that if the meal were to stop here we could leave happy.
From the fire comes our mains; retired dairy cow for Claire, deep bovine flavour, loads of chew, to be combed through a rosehip hot sauce that I purchased on the way out once tried. The smoked leeks, ashy and gentle in profile, are an almost welcome relief from the big beefy notes elsewhere. It’s simple and cohesive, which is easier said than done. I take venison haunch, not overly gamey in taste, with roasted squash that I do like, and a kind of pumpkin seed pesto that I do not. It would have benefitted from a sauce of some kind, but this is still top-notch cooking.
Perhaps the surprise of the meal is that on a menu featuring dairy cow and venison, the stars are the ‘garden offerings’ side plates. Little jacket potatoes, roasted until the skin pops, sitting arse deep in smoked cream. The genius of which is not the raw mushrooms that gently wilt under the heat of the spud, but the grating of cured venison heart which lends a light beefy quality and light funk to it all. Brassicas gets grilled until the edges of the leaves are brittle and charred, before a coat of orchard fruit glaze is applied which speaks of brambles and chilli. And courgettes, again roasted over fire, with cucumber pickled that whacks of anise, and creme fraiche to temper everything out. It is one thing to make a vegetable the star of the plate, and another thing entirely to do it this well.
The better of the two desserts is a Basque-style cheesecake made from pumpkin which is bold and needs the acidity of the greengage compote to cut through it. A crispy apple terrine is new on that day and is reminiscent of the Maccie D apple pie without the cinnamon or nuclear temperature. It’s my least favourite thing we eat thanks to a slightly odd flavour coming from the exterior that I can’t quite put my finger on. Claire likes it and finishes mine, so it can’t be that bad.
After lunch we walk the beautiful walled garden, taking in the PYO flowers and the tent that serves as the dining room during the warmer months. Our bill, with wine for me and some provisions to take home for us both is under a ton, which seems extraordinary value for the sheer volume and quality of the food. Pythouse Kitchen Garden is one those finds that makes you reconsider restaurants and what they stand for. Like Ynyshir, A La Mexicana, Opheem, Carter’s, and Lake Road Kitchen, it treads its own path with a clarity of knowing who it is and where it sits in the world. From start to finish I adored every second of being there.