Okay, I’m going to come out and say it, loud and proud: I have a thing about Olive Tree head chef Christopher Cleghorn. Not a cheeky thing-style thing, you understand (I’m a grown up, for goodness sake! And Chris is a married man!). But I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m harbouring a wholly professional chef crush… for Chris is undoubtedly one of the most imaginative, dextrous and downright exciting chefs working his magic in Bath right now.
Having headed up the brigade on the OT kitchen for a couple of years, Chris’s reputation has grown and blossomed with the seasons. But my most recent trip to his prandial playground utterly astounded me – it’s been a long, long time since I can honestly say, hand on heart, that every single morsel of a Summer Tasting Menu was thrillingly exciting; as an added bonus, it was wonderful to have my interest in food (and writing about it) thoroughly reinvigorated.
Part of Chris’s confidence could be credited to a recent kitchen refurbishment that’s given the whole team a sleek, streamlined, utterly cool (in all senses of the word) environment to work in. On the other side of the pass, the restaurant has undergone a makeover too, introducing a thoroughly modern (though still suitably, invitingly plush) ambience in which to enjoy the Cleghorn “experience” – and what chef wouldn’t revel in the fact that the dining room in which his food is served is as seductive as the menus he’s creating? Service is just lovely, too – restaurant manager Philip Hawkins deserves a Gold Star in his own right for leading a front of house team who make all-comers feel so welcome, with their every whim attended to, even when the restaurant is buzzing. But the food – oh, the food! Here we go…
Sweet, fresh crab mousse twixt basil- and ginger-infused lasagne, bathed in a soft, seductive bisque. Meltingly tender poached and roasted duck liver contrasted by the sweet, playful crunch of candied walnuts, seductive little umami hits of smoked eel and sharp, fruity morsels of pickled rhubarb. Loin and belly of lamb so tender it almost brought tears to our eyes, teamed with a smoky burnt aubergine puree that could have fought with the delicacy of the gentle flesh but instead served to elevate it to a level that can only be described as divine. Roquefort with another sprinkle of candied walnuts (seriously, I can’t get enough of them), with pear and celery to add yet more crunch and contrast to a cheese that, as a stand-alone element, I normally wouldn’t give a passing glance to, but in this context I would happily spend the rest of my life with. An airy melange of sharp cream cheese, zingingly intense, sweet raspberries and fiery ginger. A chocolate and cherry mousse served with caramelised white chocolate (if you, like me, think you’re not a fan of white chocolate, prepare to have all your objections blown out of the water) and a Tonka Bean ice cream that delivered that uniquely tobacco-ish, spicy, dark honey flavour-blast in a way that only the Tonka Bean can do. With each course, a perfectly matched wine, a trio of which in particular caused a sensation all of their own: a floral Godello Bioca that I never would have guessed might have been created with crab in mind; Vouvray Champalou that, when sipped before the duck liver arrived, tasted like it couldn’t have held it’s own against anything more powerful than a platter of fresh melon but exploded into complements when the super-intense second course arrived; a Domaine du Grand Mayne Vendange Tardive that initially tasted way too powerful for even Roquefort to duet with but created a sonnet on the palate with the cheese course. Oh, clever, clever, clever… ingenious, in fact. But not – and I repeat, absolutely not – in that snooty, haughty, over-cheffy way that make the you-and-me folk feel as though this kind of experience is designed to appeal to “gourmets only”.
Chris Cleghorn may well be a chef’s chef, but he’s a people chef too; he does amazing, astounding things with accessible, seasonal produce that we all know and love, then casts an unforgettable spell over the whole lot… and, in this instance, the person writing about it too.