The foyer, I marvelled, was a flutter of black tie and chiming clocks as we were welcomed into a panelled drawing-room with ornate carvings. But then it all went as pear-shaped as fruit growing in the restaurant’s orchard. Waiters in white gloves hovered with Savoy-style solemnity, but the food was uneven and the table more so – it collapsed. If you are going to be really grand, you need to be really good. The disappointment, I harumphed, was that it could have been sublime, but just wasn’t. Well, guess what? It now is. Rarely have I had quite so much pleasure eating my words. New owners, chef and style of service have transformed the experience. This now does justice to the setting.
Gravetye recently regained its Michelin star and has won more plaudits than Leonardo has for being mauled by a bear. Credit goes to Jeremy Hosking, hedge funder, who bought the struggling pile in 2010: it was an “emotional” purchase as he had stayed in the hotel as a child, and later proposed here to his wife. We are told he has yet to draw a profit, so much has he ploughed into restoration. Similar credit goes to newish chef George Blogg, who has skillfully modernised the menu without scaring traditional patrons. He talks daily to the eight gardeners, who grow much of the produce in grounds which gave birth to the English natural garden thanks to celebrated Victorian owner William Robinson. His presence is felt in the large hall, with ornate horticultural mouldings, where we enjoy stiff pre-dinner gin and tonic sharpeners before a huge roaring fire. It is a reminder that what goes on in the garden is as important here as in the kitchen. The intimate panelled dining room is all candles and white linen, but now staff are polite rather than obsequious, and can talk intelligently about the menu. I start with beautifully presented hand-dived Orkney scallops, plumper than a character by Beryl Cook, with miso glaze, and sesame seed and seaweed crackers – and we discover that this, as dinner dances its delicious course, is the chef’s big theme: contrasting textures. So, the crunchiness of the crackers accentuates the smooth softness of the fleshy scallops (pictured).
Diana goes for the three course set dinner menu for £40 (with canapés, amuse-bouche and pre-pudding thrown in). This might be a special occasion joint, but if three courses in a pub costs £30, this is value. Her starter gets Diana off to a flyer, baked pumpkin with al dente pearl barley and roasted pumpkin seed granola which complements the sweetness of the pumpkin. This is joined by the loveliest golden ball of goat curd, oozing with the first cut. A fine balance of flavours and textures.
The seared fillet of stone bass continues the exemplary standards. Crispy on the outside but moist, flakey and sweet inside. It sits on a bed of black jasmine rice. This is paired with garden produce of sautéed baby leek, slightly caramelised roasted shallots and chanterelles. On the set menu, charred rump of aged beef comes with crushed swede and a field mushroom atop a fondant potato in a red wine jus, with the watercress puree adding softness to the punch of the beef. Puddings revive the theme of contrasting textures, the rhubarb crumble soufflé again showcasing crunchy and smooth flavours. The crumble is added after the soufflé has risen perkily. But star performer is surely the chocolate delice, with the chewy caramel base highlighting the cold, creamy, dark, chocolate. The crème fresh sorbet provides respite from the intensity of the chocolate; fab.
Gravetye had over-reached itself by claiming to be “one of the finest restaurants in the countryside”, inviting comparisons with such greats as Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Not now. As one of the pioneering restaurants which – along with the Lake District’s Sharrow Bay – first took fine dining into rural Britain, it is once more setting new standards. If such rapid progress continues, why can’t it take on Le Manoir?
Boy, have I enjoyed eating this humble pie…
Worth going for: Fire, food and frolicking in the grounds