Review: Gravetye Manor
“I did find myself wondering about the sea bass or pigeon ….
Oh, the curse of being a procrastinating foodie….”
Oh, I do love a good country house hotel.
It’s something we just do so well in the UK, and this time of year is a perfect time to visit – roaring log fires, cosy panelled rooms, squishy sofas, a sense of history and grandeur combining to create a quintessential country house experience.
We are blessed with some great examples in Sussex: South Lodge, Ockenden Manor and Alexander House spring to mind, and Gravetye Manor has been on my list of must-tries for quite some time. Having recently been awarded a Michelin star, I thought it the perfect venue to meet the marvellous Mr Hoffmann after a meeting at nearby Gatwick.
Gravetye is a beautiful property surrounded by woodland with a mile-long twisting drive through the woods to get to the majestic front gates. It was built in 1598 and was once owned by William Robinson, widely regarded as one of the greatest gardeners of all time and said to have invented the original English natural garden. His legacy can be admired in the grounds and, importantly for me, on the plate. Gravetye first became a hotel in 1958 when it was purchased by Peter Herbert following Robinson’s death. In 2010 Jeremy Hosking, a long-standing patron of the hotel, purchased the property and set about a programme of restoration and conservation, nurturing and preserving the natural history and country hospitality. He seems to be doing a great job. The team are clearly passionate about Gravetye and take great pride in showcasing the property and all that it has to offer. The service is extremely attentive (a little too much so – more on that later) and welcoming. When we arrived we were warmly greeted by the staff and I felt instantly relaxed as I was led past the open log fire into the bar. We started with some English sparkling wine, a Seyval Blanc, from nearby Bluebell Vineyard Estates. I found this a touch too sweet for my taste; I much prefer the other local sparkler, Ridgeview.
The menu is comprehensive without being overly lengthy, and as this is my favourite time of year for food, I found it quite difficult to choose. I called over the restaurant Manager, Dominic, and asked him to talk me through the dishes. I’d narrowed it down to four! He did so without hesitation and without having to defer to the chef at any point. I was impressed! It’s one of my bugbears when front of house don’t know enough about the menu. I had intended to choose healthily. This is a constant mind battle for me at any given moment – health vs. taste/greed – but greed won out as soon as I spotted a pig cheek ‘tart’. I love all things piggy (I’m such a bad Jew) and this sounded an interesting dish: glazed tart of pig cheek and penny bun, roasted celeriac and pear sorbet.
Maarten and I ended up negotiating, as we both wanted the same starters and mains – this is not on when reviewing! I wasn’t willing to give up the pig cheek but relented on the mains and allowed him to have my first choice of charred rump of English rose veal with sweetbreads, Jerusalem artichoke, leek and gremolata. After much agonising between pigeon, sea bass or guinea fowl, I ordered guinea fowl: roasted breast and confit thigh, cauliflower, truffle, pak choi, potato and thyme pressing and mead sauce. Maarten ordered the pressed foie gras with Madeira jelly, almond brioche and caramelised orange – my second choice starter.
Canapés quickly arrived as we sipped our drinks – a mini arancini, a cheese puff, and salmon tartare.These were fine.
We moved to the dining room, a wood-panelled, quite formal space, but thankfully it didn’t feel too formal or stuffy, despite the starched white table cloths. The tables are large and round, conducive to social interaction and providing plenty of space. An amuse bouche of celeriac velouté with seeds was simple but with great richness and depth of flavour. There were two types of bread on offer; a sourdough and an onion bread. Neither were warm nor tasted freshly made, but I assume they were. For me, this was a blessing, as I was able to leave them alone.
Starters arrived. The pig cheek tart was impressive. It appeared as a slice of tart on the plate, the pig cheek encased in caramelised celeriac and with a pear sorbet on the side. The richness of the pig cheek was cut through by the sweetness of the caramelised celeriac and then balanced with the sharpness of the pear sorbet – a perfect marriage of texture, flavour and temperature. On tasting Maarten’s foie gras I realised I’d negotiated well on this first course. Again, the combinations of flavours on the plate were well executed, caramelised orange segments and Madeira gel a good accompaniment to the rich foie gras. However, the almond brioche lacked almond flavour and could have been more moist, and I found the foie gras a little too salty, but good nevertheless.
I lost on the mains. Maarten’s rose veal was excellent: perfectly cooked meat, and the sweetbread buttery and delicate, melt-in-the-mouth. My dish of guinea fowl was a fine example. The best thing on the plate was the confit of thigh, which had been fashioned into a cube of deliciousness. The guinea fowl was well cooked – moist and flavourful, with good, crisp skin. The accompanying vegetables and puree were also good. But given that these ingredients are quite ordinary, I would have loved something to lift the whole dish to a new level – a more intensely flavoured element to the dish, or a different texture (everything was quite ‘soft’ on the plate). I did find myself wondering about the sea bass or pigeon …. Oh, the curse of being a procrastinating foodie….
As we were both driving, our wine consumption was frustratingly limited. I chose a pinot noir and Maarten a pinot gris, both good choices.
A mango sorbet promised to cleanse the palate. I’ve always been suspicious of this concept, preferring to cleanse my palate with more wine, frankly. I am not a fan of sorbet; I find it an unnecessary sugar hit ahead of the more worthwhile sugar consumption of dessert.
Their signature dessert is soufflé, which changes with the seasons. This time it was raspberry, recently collected from the garden. This was sublime, one of the best desserts I have had in a long time, and I am not usually a fan of ‘fruit-orientated’ desserts. I am always drawn to chocolate if it’s on the menu, so when my chocolate pave arrived, it was a little disappointing in comparison to the magnificent soufflé. Chocolate desserts do need to be spot-on in order to stand out and demand the right combination of density, intensity of flavour, lightness and texture. To me, this chocolate dessert was out of balance, feeling heavy on the palate without the intensity. I spotted the caramelised white chocolate mousse at a nearby table; this looked fantastic and left me vowing to return so that I could try it (along with the pigeon… or the sea bass). Petit fours included fudge, plus a mini coconut macaroon dipped in chocolate – crisp outside and moist within.
Overall, I was impressed with the level of cooking and the combinations of flavours. Service was very good, except that we were asked if everything was okay far too often. At one point we were interrupted whilst in the depths of conversation – unnecessary and a little irritating.
Afterwards we chatted with the chef, George Blogg – a charming and humble gentleman who talked passionately about the team, including the gardener Tom, responsible for providing George an ever-changing, rich bounty of produce. He talked of local suppliers and selecting only the very best. He talked at length about the menu and the intent behind the concepts of various dishes. It was good to hear first-hand the level of thought and consideration that goes into creating such great food.
It’s clear that Gravetye are not trying to prove anything or be anything that they are not, resisting the temptation to ‘trendy’ the place up by adding spas or shades of Farrow and Ball greys. It is a traditional country gem with old-school charm and very good food. A place to visit at least every season.
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