Alderminster

The Oak Room at Ettington Park

The long driveway into Ettington Park could be straight out of a movie. The road slowly bends around as the trees begin to disperse and the mansion looms majestically at the back. The side profile, being the first full look, is impressive enough, though the gothic turrets and dramatic arched windows really come into their own from face-on. It’s a handsome building within beautiful grounds, the ideal romantic getaway. Oh, and it’s allegedly the country’s most haunted hotel. Given how the weekend would pan out, a ghost would be the only thing going bump in the night in our room.

The proportions here are of those built a long time ago with little care for budget. Staircases unwind into large receptions, drinks are enjoyed in drawing rooms larger than some homes. Our room is functional without being flash, spacious without the excess the rest of the building has. It has the benefit of a view across the sprawling grounds that succeeds in making me want to leave it and explore. The bed is deep and provides a good night sleep before breakfast the following morning.

The restaurant here is The Oak Room, a beautifully appointed space of dark woods and low light. It is exceptionally romantic, an ideal space for two people to relax and enjoy the two AA rosette food. Except I am here alone. My girlfriend is in bed, laid low with the finest that the Indian water sanitation system could send her back with, just 24 hours from landing. It’s not an ideal situation, though a bottle of good red from a top-heavy wine list proves to be an adequate companion. My mood does not improve with the amouse bouche, a goats cheese mousse with crouton and cherry. The first mouthful is great; the crouton is buttery and light, the sharp sweetness of the cherry an ideal counterfoil, but once they go it is just three more spoonful’s of goats cheese on its own. It needs a rethink in how it is plated.

A pork cheek starter is sat on a dice of celery and apple that gives a subtle nod toward Waldorf. There is a smear of cauliflower purée and a charred floret from the same brassica. It eats well, but once again we have issues with proportion; not enough of that tender cheek to go with all that veg.

And then fireworks happen. Monkfish loin rolled in spices, with picked carrots and cauliflower, and a bowl of dhaal full of smokiness and gentle heat. Yes, the dish is very obviously inspired by Purnell’s winning fish course on GBM, but frankly who cares when it is this good. I’ve eaten both and this probably pips it on the basis that the flavour is more pronounced. I love the additional tangle of fried onion that they call bhaji and I am calling paradise, and the yogurt dressing which tempers the heat when liberally applied. It’s a super bit of cooking.

The same applies for dessert, a beautifully worked homage to the apple. At the base is a silky smooth set cream, blanketed in a sharp jelly and balls of macerated fruit. On the side are two perfectly made cinnamon donuts. It’s apple pie without the scalded mouth. The flavour is fantastic, each layer pronounced and overall cleansing rather than too sweet.

The meal may have improved with every course but the service was polished to a high gleam throughout. They have a smart operation here that is seamless in delivery; wine is effortlessly topped up, dishes nudged in and out of place from acute angles. It works as a restaurant on its own, not just as a facility for a hotel. I want to return when we can enjoy for what it is, not when I am sat bullseye in the room, with a room full of couples wondering who the weirdo on his own taking pictures of his food is. But that’s fine with me. I return to the room, where I find the TV on and madam fast asleep. Ettington Park is a beautiful place to spend a night or three, she too will understand this one day soon.

7/10

Our stay at Ettington Park Hotel was complimentary, and they subsidised a proportion of the dinner bill. The stay was arranged by Shakespeare’s England. Www.shakespeares-england.co.uk

The Bell at Alderminister

It takes us all of ten minutes drive from Stratford upon Avon to Alderminister, where we have lunch booked at The Bell.  It feels like a lifetime away; the touristy bustle of Shakespeare’s home fades out to a lush greenery, with only cars and cows for company.  The air is clean here, the pace of a life a yard slower than the rushed city steps we are used to.  It makes me hanker for a simpler life.  One where I don’t have a choice of where to go for falafel, or which Pokémon Go player to mow down next.

009

 

Our arrival at The Bell only enhances these emotions, more so when we are seated in the garden to make the most of our four days of British Summertime.  Here the chairs may be harder on the back, but the view gets no better.  The hedges open up to sprawling fields that roll and promise to never end.  We look inside to the airy white dining room, ornate and filled with washed wood.  It looks a nice place to have dinner but today we will bask in the warm rays.  Its safe to say we will be back to sit in the room when the weather is less generous.

001

002

 

 

The menu is a list of things you want to eat, all a cut above normal pub grub.  We opt for the set menu – a bargain at £17.50 for three course – and order a pint or two of local beer to see us on our way.  A salad of pickled vegetables, tomato, parmesan and prosciutto is a simple thing, well executed.  It is a sum of parts, all of which are sourced and handled with respect.  The bite of the pickled veg releases just enough acidity to cut through the salty ham.

004

The best dish we ate all day would be pork and pepper meatballs, meaty and heavily seasoned, with a saffron risotto and confit chorizo.  Everything is accurately cooked but it is the risotto that makes it; as good as any I’ve eaten since Gauthier two years ago, light and rich with metallic saffron notes.  This is stellar cooking for a pub.  A vegetarian main sees a thick slice of aubergine grilled with a smoky tomato sauce and parmesan as a nod towards the northern Italian melanzane.  The side salad has bits of bulgur wheat clinging on to  fat cubes of feta. Dots of pomegranate give pops of sweetness and slivers of pickled red onion for a sharp tang.  All the flavour profiles are here.  Its a clever bit of vegetarian cooking.

005

006

Sweet courses are on familiar ground. Eton mess is a comforting blend of cream, strawberry and meringue, whilst a sticky toffee pudding is all sweetness and no respite.  Both are well made and constructed, the attention to detail there with the coloured and decorated meringue.  I should point out that the desserts on the a la carte look far more appealing.  Next time, eh.

008

007

And with that we say goodbye to our utterly charming waitress, pay our way and stroll out the back for a walk across the fields.  We came with no expectations other than a feed out in the sticks and left wishing that we lived closer.  The Bell at Alderminster is a great place which I know we will come back to time and time again.

8/10

The Bell at Alderminster is part of Shakespeare’s England.  For more information please see shakespearesengland.co.uk/