June 26 2018

Review: The Bybrook at The Manor House Hotel, Castle Combe

If Castle Combe isn’t the prettiest village in England, I’ll eat my entire collection of Beatrix Potter books. It’s so picture postcard perfect that you expect Mrs Tiggywinkle herself to come scuttling out of one of the dinky little rose-covered cottages and offer you a cup of tea; indeed, the majority of tourists wander around the village murmuring “it’s like being on a film set!” over and over again, because nobody can believe that real life England really can be this beautiful without the aid of arc lights, Renee Zelwegger and a Richard Curtis script.

In keeping with the location, the 5-star Manor House Hotel – which very subtly dominates village life – is the epitome of country house hotel perfection. This elegant pile of grand, stately home proportions even boasts its own golf course, a flourishing kitchen garden, a babbling brook running through the grounds and a private lane of original village cottages adjacent to the house: quaint but uber-glamorous love nests each retaining their own individual character. Gorgeous? You got it: in spades. Meanwhile, in the hotel’s Bybrook restaurant…

The spacious, stateroom-like, chandelier-lit dining room, decorated in several shades of cool greys and luxurious purples, is, at first glance, forebodingly formal. Once at our table, however, the supremely welcoming, well-informed staff team made us feel as though we were most definitely to the Manor born. Each and every one of them are clearly proud of – and excited about – the food they’re about to present you with… any why wouldn’t they be?

Having worked at a number of critically acclaimed hotels and restaurants across the UK including a stint working alongside Hywel Jones at Lucknam Park, Head Chef Robert Potter floated into the Bybrook in February 2016. He was awarded a Michelin star in 2017 which he retained this year – the only surprise to me about this news, having now experienced Rob’s magic, is that his star wasn’t doubled-up this year.

Rob’s 7-course Tasting Menu is, at £95, very well priced for an experience of this standard – trust me, honestly; I know that’s a lot of money to fork out for dinner, but you really do get what you pay for here. There’s more variation, imagination and skill within the elegantly enticing selection than you’d find on the combined menus of a dozen similarly pitched destination dining experiences in the nearby vicinity, while the of-the-moment seasonality and impeccable sourcing is impressive, to say the least.

Even the opening act – an amuse bouche of sweet, mellifluous Orkney scallops served with cauliflower caramelised to coffee-hued cloak perfection, silky Iberico ham, a fascinating caper and raisin puree and nutty, aromatic beurre noisette (see pic,) accompanied by the kind of fresh bread that makes you swear never, ever to open a cellophane wrapper again, will linger long in my memory. After that, Loch Duart salmon, confited and citrus cured to an almost pate-like consistency, teamed with beetroot and a mousse of dill-thrummed Yukon Gold potato and horseradish. After that, roast breast and confit leg of quail, dotted hither and thither with dinky, cleanly herbaceous, cherubic Mushrooms a la Grecque, Wiltshire truffle and a golden egg yolk that, once pierced, oozed sublimely rich luxuriousness across an already opulent amalgamation.

Three dishes into my foodie-fabulous foray, and I was spellbound. Yes, there’s all manner of scientific gastro-wizardry at work in the kitchen, but not so much that you can’t see the food for the flourish. Glamorous though the dish was (and every dish was supremely, massively glamorous,) the moist, tender braised halibut with plush lobster mousse, sea purslane and shellfish bisque was essentially an homage to the British seaside – the fish itself had probably been leaping around in a nearby sparkling stream as recently as I’d been sipping a pre-dinner glass of fizz; the accompanying flavours elevated it to a dish of superstar proportions. Next up, creamy, slinky slab of confit suckling pig belly, the tender meat’s inherent fattiness smartly contrasted by a deeply flavoursome nub of glazed cheek, presented in perfect partnerships of caramelised Roscoff onion (ambrosial, with a subtle taste of rosé wine,) cheeky pickled turnip and organic cider sauce. The dish probably took about four days to conceive and three to prepare, but still retained that comfortingly familiar, satisfyingly seductive roast pork vibe: a work of art, and the most unique twist on a traditional Sunday dinner you’ll ever encounter

By the time we were tucking into our desserts (yes, two desserts: a featherlight strawberry mousse with champagne and elderflower jelly and a Gariguette strawberry salad; sweet, sharp and very, very smart Amalfi lemon tart with baby basil and a heavenly raspberry sorbet) we were putty in the Lord of the Manor’s hands; Manor from heaven indeed.

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