The Vineyard, Newbury
I didn’t plan to rock up to The Vineyard on one of the hottest days of summer, but it certainly didn’t do any harm to see it bathed in glorious sunshine, looking every inch the glam weekend retreat for beautiful people.
I was certainly not looking beautiful. I was sweating like a tomato in a greenhouse and to say I was ‘bedraggled’ is being kind, when a softly-spoken waitress, with not so much as a sparkle on her cool brow, greeted me and Mr Muddy B and asked if we’d like an aperitif on the sun-drenched Mediterranean style terrace before lunch. Uh, do bears bare? Does James Brown get down? That would be a YES lovely smiling lady with lengthy drinks menu.
The Vineyard is just 5 minutes outside Newbury, on a busy main road (but I didn’t notice that once we’d swept into the gravel driveway and road noise, along with any worries and woes, are all absorbed by lush foliage and tinkly fountain). Originally an 18th-century hunting lodge, it was turned into a hotel and spa by its current owner, Sir Peter Michael in 1996 (factoid: he’s also the founder of Classic FM, so you know the elevator music is going to be quality).
The modern additions might not be to everyone’s taste, but the main (original) building is all high ceilings and sweeping staircases with modern California-esque airy interiors. And wine. Lots of wine. There is wine, and references to wine, literally everywhere, and I had heaps of fun seeking them out like Miss Marple (although I think she was more partial to a sweet sherry).
Sir Michael is very into his wine. And when I say that, I don’t mean he braves the New World shelves at Waitrose rather than relying on a bottle of ‘Good with Fish’. I mean he owns a vineyard. Shut up. Yes, really. In Sonoma, California. Now that is what I call being into your wine. The USP is pretty evident from the moment you step inside and see the incredible wine cellar…
Anyway, enough about wine (I’m beginning to feel a little drunk) shall I tell you about the food? Head Chef Robby Jenks only joined the Vineyard in February, so I was really excited to try his cooking. Bizarrely I think I’ve eaten at every restaurant he’s ever worked in, but without having met or interviewed him – Gidleigh Park, Whatley Manor, Amberley Castle (where he gained 3 AA Rosettes) – I’ve definitely eaten (or let’s be honest, over-eaten) at all of those. Lucky, piggy little me.
The large dining room with its plush interiors, is nice and light and stretches across two levels giving it a relaxed open feel. We were sat in a cosy little corner á deux and as much as I like being in the thick of things, it was actually quite nice being tucked away, and it would make an ideal date night spot if you’re really looking to rack up brownie points.
Jenks is young and clearly hungry for more success. He describes his style as classical cooking with modern techniques, and he’s big on using local, sustainable seasonal produce. We tried the lunch menu (3-courses, £29; 3-course dinner is £65) with matching wines for each course available (or some delicious non-alcoholic cocktails for the driver, which was me on the day). These aren’t set menus, you are choosing from several á la carte choices and the choice is good without being too overwhelming. There are also two incredible tasting menus – The Judgement Tasting Menu (8 dishes including cheese £99) or the Discovery Tasting Menu (six dishes including cheese, £85) with wine pairing available.
I started with halibut tartar, nasturtium, dill granita and kohlrabi. Amazingly fresh and zingy with the delicate raw fish and herby granita – the same kick you get from a gazpacho. I loved it. Especially on a roasting hot day.
Mr Muddy B chose what would be his last supper – foie gras – a foie gras mousse, almond crumble and preserved cherries and it was a thing of beauty and tasted: ‘mmmm, yep, mmmmm, oh yeah, good, mmmm’. I know, sounds positively X-Rated doesn’t it?
For our mains, I had the roasted Aylesbury duck breast, with cabbage and bacon, and apple, and it was my absolute winning dish of the day. If they don’t serve this in Heaven you can keep my golden ticket.
Mr Muddy B had Oxfordshire lamb, sweetcorn, almond and caramelised butter. Tender pink lamb and all sorts of exciting flavours going on with a definite nod to Jackson Pollock if it was a work of art (which all Jenks’ dishes are).
Dessert was tricky as we had the usual ‘I want everything’ conundrum. I finally went for apricot parfait, Fernet Branca marshmallow and peach sauce. Fernet Branca is, as we all know of course, an Italian herbal liqueur. Mr Muddy B had chocolate, salted caramel, cacao nibs and fromage blanc sorbet and spent much of his time trying to fend off my encroaching spoon. Both puds were seriously, seriously delicious, with such amazing attention to detail.
Mr Muddy sampled the matching wines (£7, £12 or £18 per glass), which if you’re into your wine you’ll know were just about the perfect match for each course: Kaapzicht, Hanepoot, South Africa 2014; Preludio, Tannat, Uruguay 2013; and a Pacherenc Du Vic Bilh, Berthoumieu, France 2013. Please don’t ask me to give you any more details, you’re lucky I managed to scribble the names down. Do you realise the effort it takes to eat with one hand and write with the other? Honestly, it’s a carpal tunnel syndrome claim waiting to happen.
The food cannot be faulted, I’m pleased that Robby Jenks has got into his stride so quickly here and a few other publicans and chefs I’ve spoken to have eaten his food and are seriously impressed, so if you do want your socks knocked off, better book now.
Obviously the food gets a massive tick, but the restaurant’s charm lies in its staff. The service was warm and friendly, nothing was too much for them and they clearly know their stuff. I would say they could relax even a little more, and we did have quite a few different people serving us even before we sat down to eat. But that’s just a minor niggle. Our Sommelier, Dorianne, was excellent, giving us lots of interesting snippets about the wine without bogging us down with too much detail. And our waiter navigated us through the courses with the kind of confidence and ease that only comes with years of experience.
Sadly, due to a small child/large hockey ball-related incident at summer camp we had to leave before we could drink our coffee and eat our petit fours. Our waiter looked so mournful when I said we had to rush off I felt terrible. ‘No coffee madame? Not even one little petit fours?’ I was practically sobbing in the car at the thought of my chocolates melting in the midday sun on that gorgeous terrace.
We’ll be back though. Even if a special occasion meal isn’t on the cards there are plenty of other reasons to try The Vineyard if you haven’t done so yet, including wine dinners, private dining and ladies’ lunches, and a friend tells me the afternoon tea is fab. I’ll be back for those petit fours!
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Foodies, foodies, FOODIES! Robby Jenks’ cooking will give you tingles. Wine lovers keen to try something new – you have over 30,000 bottles to choose from (100 by the glass) plus regular wine dinners; private wine tastings; wine school; special-occasion meals, afternoon tea with your mum; lunch with the girls – they get great speakers for their ladies lunches; anyone with taste buds frankly.
Not for: Small children who only appreciate nugget-shaped food (obviously); lovers of more casual fine dining – this is definitely crisp white tablecloth deep-pile carpet territory; rowdy get togethers – the restaurant has a serene (but not stuffy) atmosphere that you’ll want to savour.
£££: Prices are reasonable for this quality, obviously the wine is where it could all get a little out of hand depending on how flush you’re feeling. You definitely get what you pay for though – the restaurant has 3 AA Rosettes, and you’re made to feel very special by the staff. Perfect for a birthday treat, anniversary etc. but the lunch and dinner prices are so reasonable I wouldn’t rule it out for just an enjoyable lunch with the girls (the Spa has a 5 bubble rating, just saying!).
The Vineyard, Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 8JU. Tel: 01635 899460. Lunch: 12pm to 2pm (Tasting Menu to 1.30pm); Dinner: 7pm to 9.30pm (Tasting Menu to 9pm). www.the-vineyard.co.uk