Editor's note. In February 2014 there was a change of head chef. Marcus McGuiness, formerly of Malt House, Hibiscus and Champignon Sauvage, is now head chef, with Anthony Demetre of Arbutus providing consultancy.
Auberge du Lac is a French restaurant located inside the considerable grounds of the Brocket Hall estate in Hertfordshire. This 540 acre property is now primarily a golf club and boutique hotel. The country house was originally built in 1760, staying in private hands until the late 20th century. There is a large lake and extensive woodland on the estate. It is worth bearing in mind that there are two entrances: the one marked “Brocket Hall: Private Residence”, the one we took, is not the correct one. As we discovered, it is quite easy to get lost on the estate at night; there are few signposts, though the reception staff were helpful at directing us by phone before eventually sending out a search party to find us. The Auberge du Lac is on the other side of the estate from the main Brocket Hall building (which featured in the wonderful 1957 movie "Night of the Demon" as the evil Dr Karswell's home), in what was originally the estate hunting lodge. It has a bar at the ground floor level and the dining room downstairs, overlooking the lake. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 2009. Chef Phil Thompson has worked here since 2005, and as head chef since 2002. He previously trained at l’Escargot and some London hotels, and was in the kitchen the night of our visit. The dining room is carpeted, with white linen tablecloths and tables that were well spaced but surprisingly small. Somewhat intrusive muzak played in the background.
The menu is fairly conventional in style, with three courses at £60 (vegetables are extra at £3.50). The lengthy wine list had around 400 different bottles to choose from, quite heavily centred on France but with a decent selection of wines from elsewhere. The list ranged in price from £26 to £3,913 with an average price of £103 a bottle. Mark-up levels are fierce, with an average gross profit of 80% meaning price levels are around 4.5 times retail, a level up with the highest in Mayfair. Example wines include Chateau St Michelle Pinot Gris 2008 at £33 for a wine that you can find in the shops for £9, Domaine Laroche les Vauvedey 2008 at £78 for a wine that retails at £16, up to wines like Vincent Morey Batard Montrachet 2007 at £443 for a wine that you can find for £91 in the shops. We drank Mas de Daumas Gassac Blanc 2007 at £75 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £20.
The initial nibbles comprised venison sausage rolls, a smoked salmon croquette, garlic breadsticks with hummus and cheese and hazelnuts in a pastry case. The best of these was the sausage roll; the croquette tasted of salmon but could have been crisper, the other nibbles pleasant rather than exciting (14/20). The amuse-bouche was a Jerusalem artichoke velouté, topped with slivers of toasted artichoke: the soup was a little salty and for me could have had more concentrated artichoke flavour, though it was certainly enjoyable (14/20). Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, and consisted of a choice of flavours: rosemary focaccia, onion and Cheddar, multigrain, walnut and sultana or sage and onion. The best of these was the walnut and sultana bread, which had good texture. The rosemary focaccia needed more rosemary and its texture would not have passed muster in Italy, while the other breads were fine. It is good to see a kitchen make its own bread (15/20).
A starter of Loch Duart salmon was cured with vanilla, served with potted brown shrimps, pieces of cauliflower with yoghurt and lime, garnished with a little melba toast. The vanilla flavour was fortunately quite restrained, but the salmon was not very carefully prepared, with some rather stringy pieces that should have been discarded before serving. The shrimps worked well, though there were quite a lot of elements to this dish, adding a lot of different flavours (13/20).
Scallops were from Scotland and hand-dived, served with little croquettes of pig’s head, sauce gribiche (basically egg mayonnaise with mustard) made with quail egg and tarragon. The scallops were of reasonable quality, but they were cooked a little longer than ideal, not actually chewy but headed in that direction. The sauce worked well, but it was disappointing to see that very English chef trick of trying to spin out the scallops (a relatively costly ingredient) by slicing them rather than serving them whole: the four thin slices on the plate would barely amount to a good-sized scallop. Given the price level of the food here such measures come across as just mean. I cannot ever recall seeing scallops in France served other than whole, at any restaurant price level. Objectively the dish was around 13/20 level.
The main courses were better than the starters. Plaice was coated with pumpkin and oats, garnished with slivers of squid, sprout leaves and butternut squash, with some salsify and mushrooms popping up as well. The fish was nicely cooked but there were too many garnishes for the dish to hang together harmoniously (14/20). Venison had good flavour and was nicely cooked, served with a sauce thickened with chocolate, and a bed of spaetzle (egg noodles), garnished with micro-leaves, with some small cubes of pear. I would like to have seen more sauce, though the spaetzle was a good textural accompaniment to the venison, and the pear added a little useful acidity. This dish was not overly complex and was the better for it (15/20). Roast potatoes were very good (15/20) but cauliflower cheese had undercooked cauliflower and insufficient cheese flavour for my taste (12/20).
A pre-dessert of rhubarb jelly and vanilla foam was pleasant, though the rhubarb could have been tarter (15/20). A take on tiramisu had a coffee cake slice that did not have quite enough coffee flavour resting in custard, topped with a good bitter chocolate ice cream and amaretto jelly, the plate dusted with cocoa powder, garnished with pieces of chocolate tuile. This was quite an attractive dish but for tiramisu the coffee intensity is important, and this rather limited the impact of the dish (14/20). I tried the unusual dessert of a soufflé of apple crumble and custard, with toffee apple parfait and doughnuts. The soufflé itself worked well, with light texture and the flavour of the crumble coming through well. The dish was let down a little by some rather soggy doughnuts, but it was certainly very enjoyable overall (15/20). Coffee was of reasonable quality but came without any petit fours, a little surprising in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Service was friendly though far from being a well-oiled machine. Topping up of water and wine was erratic, and despite quite a lot of waiting staff it was not always easy to catch anyone’s eye. The sommelier, who had worked before at Maze Grill, did at least know his wine. The bill came to £121 per person, with no pre-dinner drinks, a mid-range wine and a single glass of dessert wine. This price point just seems to me too high for what was delivered. The ingredients, as shown by the venison, were quite good, and there were no glaring errors in technique, but there was a tendency to overload dishes with more flavours than were really needed. Given the very expensive wine list and the hardly bargain price for three courses it was jarring to see money-saving touches such as the omission of petit fours, the extra charge for vegetables and the thin slicing of the scallops. I imagine that this is a very profitable operation. The restaurant setting is grand but I didn’t feel this was good value for money.