February 23 2022

Review: new Head Chef Martin Blake’s Tasting Menu, The Royal Crescent Hotel

Heaven, I’m in heaven, And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak, And I seem to find the happiness I seek, When we’re…” well, not dancing cheek-to-cheek, exactly – unless, that is, battling Storm Dudley, or Eunice, or Franklin (seriously, I can’t be the only one who can’t keep up with the names of the latest storms on our doorsteps) as we struggle to make our way along Bath’s most iconic thoroughfare counts as some form of Quickstep. But when we finally reach our journey’s end… yup, I’m in heaven.

Despite whatever’s going on in the world (and all too often, lately, there’s all too much of that), The Royal Crescent Hotel is the kind of place that soothes wearied brows, smooths fraught tensions and puts a song in your heart from the get-go, even if you’re not on a fast-track to the hotel’s super-sensual spa. To me, however, staff who make you feel like a red carpet superstar from the first welcome to the last goodnight, eminently elegant surroundings and the prospect of a Tasting Menu courtesy of a brand new chef in the RCH kitchen is the ultimate brow-soothing, tension-smoothing experience without the faff of having my mascara steamed off. But first stop, before I get my brow sorted: the hotel’s Montagu Bar, for a meet’n’greet with that aforementioned new chef…

Despite his newbie status at the RCH, Martin Blake is no stranger to the pass. He’s got over a dozen years of experience at what reads like a roll call of some of the South West’s best hotels and restaurants on his CV, with stints at the Bath Priory, Homewood Park and The Manor House (where the restaurant team achieved a Michelin Star in 2016) bolstering his pedigree alongside a clutch of prestigious awards. And yet, and yet… he floats into the bar all friendly and chilled out, with a distinctly non-scary chef vibe about him despite the fact that both he and I know that he’s about to embark on what’s set to be a very busy dinner service. The bar is buzzing with pre-dinner diners and hotel guests, I’m buzzing with chef-intro excitement, Mr Pig’s buzzing ‘cos he’s drinking what he says is “the best Manhattan outside of Manhattan itself”… but Martin’s all cool, calm and collected, ready to cook up the kind of storm that kicks Dudley, Eunice and Franklin combined to the kerb.

So Martin hoofs it back into the kitchen and we drift into the dining room, where legendary head sommelier Jean-Marc Leitao is dancing from table to table doing his magic by making sure that all-comers’ expectations on the wine-with-dinner front are exceeded. We sit by the window, watching Dudley/Eunice/Franklin trying but failing to make the garden look less beautiful than it always does while we can only hope that the hotel’s resident hedgehogs feel as smugly cosy as we do.

Dinner opens with canapés: smoked cod roe ‘cigars’ (my word for them, not Martin’s) and spiced pork fritters, both packing a huge, sophisticated flavour-punch that totally belie their size. There’s bread, too: crusty, rustic rolls that waft malty clouds of Bath Gem Ale as we slather the butter and scatter crumbs all over the pristine white table cloth which are swiftly (and discreetly) swept away in order to set a pristine scene for our first course of crisp, crunchy Jerusalem Artichoke Salad with silky Tunworth Cheese and deeply umami Mushroom Tea. MUSHROOM TEA! Gimme more, more, more, every day, at any time – and when salad is this sexy, I’ll make clean work of that too.

But Martin was poised to keep on upping the ante, and our fish course arrived: soft, serene Halibut on a lightly-curried mussel broth that nudged and kicked all the senses in all the right places without detracting from the sweet, briny mussel flesh, beautifully balanced, beautifully presented, just… beautiful. Was I falling in chef-lurve? Oh of course I was! And I have a feeling this one won’t be a mere one-night stand…

If the fish got me frisky (in a totally professional sense, of course), Mr Pig’s amore moment came next: velvety lamb with silky aubergine, fruity piperade and a fascinating little parcel of something very clever made with (I think?) lamb shoulder for me, and super-tender Venison with red cabbage, parsnip, a neat little cube of Valhrona chocolate & venison jus for him. Complex, sophisticated but accessible; familiar flavours refined and redefined; hearty, but in a dignified, exquisitely balanced way; this particular chef crush is set to run a very long course. But the courses in question hadn’t finished yet…

First up on the dessert front, an apple-parts party: part mousse, part sorbet, part meringue-ish – all parts fascinating, and fresh, and fabulous. And then, Rhubarb and (nutmeg) Custard Slice that totally redefines the cake shop ‘slice’ genre.

Martin states that he and his team focus on creating classic modern British dishes which are clean, elegant and perfectly executed. But he – and they – do far, far more than even all that.

Martin is clearly a Master of the Art of flavour-combination, inspiration, technique and presentation… but he cleverly avoids that over-cheffy habit of straying away from the realms of common sense. There’s a clear passion for locally sourced, seasonal ingredients at the heart of his dishes… but he has a knack of reintroducing that all-important produce to you and challenging your perceptions on what you think an erstwhile familiar ingredient may taste like. He’s clearly very serious about what he does… but his lighthearted touch makes his menus accessible to all.

Martin Blake at the Royal Crescent Hotel is a chef to keep a very keen eye on indeed.

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