Reaching for a star
Whatley Manor's got form in the kitchen with a fine-dining repertoire that's gunning for a Michelin star.
If you look for a place to eat, sleep, recharge… repeat, Whatley Manor Hotel & Spa has it all. Gorge, period building… check; luxury spa… check; top nosh… check again. Lucky old Muddy Gloucestershire Ed Sarah let her elasticated waistband take the strain to sample The Dining Room’s 12-course taster menu.
As I approached the country house hotel Manor down a serene, lime tree-lined drive, I started to feel a tingle of anticipation; there’s something about a tree-lined drive that always makes me feel like I’m entering a fairy-tale world. And this fairy tale was a triple bill – for not only is this independently owned retreat in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside a sumptuous, get-away-from-it-all boutique hotel, it’s also a luxury spa destination (read my review here) and a hotspot for fine dining with its restaurant The Dining Room, which I predict will be polishing a Michelin star before too long.
For nine years the restaurant did in fact have two Michelin stars under its former executive chef Martin Burge, who departed last year making way for rising star Niall Keating, who introduced his multi-influence menus to diners in January. And quite a cocktail of influences they are. The Staffordshire chef has had stints at Nottingham’s Sat Bains Restaurant (two Michelin stars), San Francisco’s Benu (three Michelin stars), where he worked with acclaimed South Korean-born chef Corey Lee, and Copenhagen’s Kong Hans Kaelder (one Michelin star), and he’s taken everything he’s absorbed to create a distinctive fusion of Korean, Japanese and classic French flavours that he likes to call Modern British, which, in our multi-cultural society, is probably pretty spot on.
The manor used to be a hunting lodge and you do feel like you’ve stepped into a scene from The Shooting Party, with the smell of wood smoke permeating the air and comfy, relax-after-a-hard-day’s-hunting interiors. There were endless squashy sofas to sink into in the Drawing Room which I happily did. And it was here that the tasting menu journey began and ended, because if you’re going to fine dine, the tasting menu is the zenith apparently. After the first course we moved to The Dining Room itself (for the next 10!), which was made up of three low-lit, adjoining rooms with a hushed, intimate, VIP vibe that made you feel like a celeb squirreled away in a secret bolt hole protected from prying paparazzi eyes. And the service, both discreet and super attentive, added to the beyond five-star experience. Chefs – including head honcho Keating – presented various dishes like subjects offering precious gifts to royalty (and they were very precious, but more of that in a minute), while sommelier Daniel Davies, a charming Welshman, glided in and out proffering savour-don’t-glug wine to pair with each course.
SCOFF & QUAFF
There was a lot of scoffing and quaffing with 12 courses, so I’ll just give you the edited highlights. We kicked off with spiced cracker, sesame, lime (the menu doesn’t waste any time with flowery descriptions), which did sound pretty ordinary, but it was in a different continent from your Carr’s Table Water Biscuits or Bath Olivers. A crispy, airy confection flavoured with said sesame with the spice coming from the Japanese chilli pepper togarashi, it was the receptacle of two-year-old Parmesan, Exmoor caviar, fresh lime zest and coriander – and it was incredible! I’ve literally never tasted anything like it and it was a perfect example of Keating’s magic fusion skills.
An oyster and seaweed; egg white custard and salmon roe; brown butter and bread; mackerel and preserved raspberry; and tofu dish later, the risotto with chorizo and raw scallop arrived. And while all the previous dishes had been titillating my taste buds like nobody’s business, this one was off the radar in deliciousness and I could have happily tucked into a second, third, fourth helping. As it was, I resisted licking the bowl and demurely sipped on the Chilean Carignan, which was also divine.
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Cod with Judas ear mushrooms followed and then it was onto the third of my top three courses, spring lamb, dill pickle, horseradish. The lamb was very red, in fact it looked raw, and I feared I wasn’t going to be able to eat it and so show myself up to be a right philistine, but when I cut through it, there wasn’t a drop of blood and it was the most flavoursome, melt-in-the-mouth meat I’ve ever eaten in my life. It felt like a conjuring trick – I was completely befuddled and bewitched by it.
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Which pretty much sums up how I felt about the whole experience. Each dish (we rounded off with a palate cleanser of aloe vera, grape and olive oil, a chocolate and caramel dessert confection and treats back in the Drawing Room) seemed to have landed from another culinary planet. Everything was so perfectly executed, including the portion sizes, and I didn’t feel at all over stuffed. And, despite downing eight glasses of wine (each one amazing, with a nice terroir story), I didn’t have a hint of a hangover the next morning. Now that is magic.
Er, no, to be blunt. Keep them well away. But if you’ve got them in tow, there is another restaurant, Grey’s Brasserie, which is less formal and would suit small people better. You could feed them there, put them to bed and then, woop woop, enjoy a grown-up evening of gastro delight.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: A special night out à deux. If someone wined and dined me here, I’d be putty in their hands. It’s very romantic – the restaurant, the hotel, the gardens. If I was having a staycation honeymoon or a second honeymoon (now there’s a thought) Whatley Manor would definitely be a venue contender.
Not for: As already mentioned, it’s not really a family destination. And I wouldn’t recommend it for a big celebratory shindig either, as you really just want to be able to concentrate on the food and swap gasps of delight not small talk.
The damage: While this level of cuisine doesn’t come cheap, I think £177 for a 12-course tasting menu with matching wines isn’t too outrageous, and it goes down to £99 if you opt out of the wines. You could easily spend the same on pretty average fare elsewhere.