Editor's note: in October 2018 it was announced that head chef Andre Garrett would move to the Corinithia hotel in London.
The country house Cliveden (“valley among cliffs”) has a long history, culinary and otherwise. The building was originally built as a hunting lodge in the 17th century by the Duke of Buckingham. The building was destroyed by a fire in 1795, rebuilt in 1824 and then reconstructed again in 1851 after another fire. The wealthy Astor family bought the building in 1893 (the first multi-millionaire in the USA was John Jacob Astor). The self-contained summerhouse and outdoor pool in the grounds was where John Profumo met Christine Keeler in July 1961, setting up a political scandal significant even by the high bar for such things set by British politicians. In 1985 Cliveden became a luxury hotel, the estate now owned by the National Trust. Its grounds are vast, covering 376 acres, the impressive lawn and formal garden sloping gently down towards the river Thames. The house was sufficiently grand to be used as the location for Lady Penelope’s house in the 2004 film version of the animation series Thunderbirds.
Over the years the place has seen some talented chefs come and go. I ate a fine meal here in 1998 cooked by the gifted Gary Jones (now head chef of Le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons), and since then the kitchens have seen the likes of Daniel Galmiche, Robert Thompson and Chris Horridge. The latest incumbent since August 2013 is Andre Garrett, formerly head chef of Galvin at Windows for eight years, who trained with Nico Ladenis and gained a Michelin star at Orrery.
There used to be two dining rooms at Cliveden. One was a lovely ground floor room (“The Terrace”) with views over the grounds, the other a dark and rather poky basement. Guess which they chose for the flagship restaurant? Bizarrely, for years the attractive ground floor room was relegated to acting as hotel bistro, but finally the management have come to their senses and swapped things around. The main restaurant is now on the ground floor, and the basement has been relegated to use for private functions. The original concern was the distance of the kitchen to the dining room, but the dishes that we tried were fine from a temperature persepective. The new high-ceilinged dining room can seat 70 at one time, and has tables that are quite tightly spaced for this kind of dining experience. There is also a large private room to one side.
The extensive, 700-ish label wine list started at £30 and ranged up to £2,990, but there were a few wines under £40. Lunta Mendel Malbec 2011 was £39 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £12, Meerlust Merlot 2008 was £57 for a wine that retails at £18, and Gran Clos, Fuente Bellmunt del Priorat 2004 was £97 for a wine that will set you back £36 in a shop. At the grander end of the spectrum the mark-ups, which you would expect to moderate in relative terms, seem to worsen. Camp Gros Barbaresco Marchesi di Gresy 1998 was £225 compared to a shop price of £72, Chateau l’Evangile 1989 was £450 for a wine that retails at £174, and Lafite Rothschild 1999 was £1,998 for a wine that you can find for £572 if you can afford it. Mark-up levels frequently exceeded central London: Jermann Vintage Tunina 2010, a wine that costs £80 at Toto’s in Knightsbridge, was listed here at £117, this compared to a retail price of £39. When your Tignanello price out in the countryside is higher than that of Cut in Park Lane or Assunta Madre in Mayfair then it may be time to re-think your pricing strategy if you are to tempt your diners to order good wine. Mineral water was £5 a bottle.
Three courses cost £65, and there was a seven course tasting menu at £95. We went the a la carte route. Nibbles comprised a broad bean bavarois made with black olives and a few baby vegetables “planted” in a savoury crumble acting as “soil”. The baby carrots and radishes were decent enough but this “garden” idea is hardly original, and has been done much better elsewhere e.g. at Aronia de Takazawa in Tokyo. The main issue for me was that the flavour of the beans was lacking, the olives being the main thing that you tasted (13/20). On the side was a nice Parmesan tuile, croutons and gougeres made with Parmesan. These had decent texture but could have had deeper cheese flavour, and personally I always feel that gougeres are better freshly made and served hot, straight from the oven.
Bread was apparently made in the kitchen and was served warm: a choice of white or brown rolls. These were quite doughy in texture, even the crust soft, though I have a soft spot for anywhere that makes its own bread (13/20).
A spring salad came with goat milk puree and a crisp pheasant egg. The salad had mixed leaves and herbs with nicely balanced peppery dressing, with peas, asparagus, broad beans, butternut squash and carrots. I liked the dressing but some of the vegetables rather lacked flavour (14/20). A trio of scallops from Skye were reasonably sweet and lightly cooked, served with fresh peas and pea shoots and lovage veloute. The scallops were plump, the peas pleasant but not a patch on the quality of those that you find in the Mediterranean (14/20).
Turbot came with stuffed courgette flower containing crab, with courgette, tomato fondue and a garnish of lemon rind. The fish was cooked nicely but was quite salty, the tomato fondue tasting a little sweet and not an obvious match for the fish. The courgette flower worked better as an accompaniment, the crab tasting fresh (14/20).
Black leg chicken was initially introduced as “from near Bresse” but was actually from Toulouse, a little matter of 258 miles away. It came with wild mushroom puree, vin jaune sauce and a few spring vegetables, garnished with pea shoots. In what was something of a recurring theme, the chicken was cooked carefully and topped with thin slices of black truffle, but the meat did not have a lot of flavour. The contrast in quality between this chicken and a superb Geline de Touraine chicken I ate at Hedone a couple of weeks prior to this was remarkable (14/20).
For dessert, millefeuille of exotic fruits had pastry that was pleasant in itself, but there was too little tropical fruit relative to pastry, so the overall effect was a little dry. On the side were surprisingly bland slices of mango, with a fromage frais sorbet that had smooth texture but again did little to provide much in the way of flavour. It was odd to find such aromatic fruits as mango and passion fruit producing such subdued aroma and fruit taste (13/20).
A pretty dessert of Gariguette strawberries came with almond panna cotta, pistachio cake cubes and marzipan ice cream (plus a pointless garnish of pea shoots). The texture of the panna cotta was good, but yet again the fruit flavours were rather subdued (14/20).
Coffee was from Mozzo and was enjoyable, quite rich and avoiding bitterness. The bill came to £119 per head with a bottle of German Riesling to share and a glass of dessert wine apiece. Service was very attentive and friendly. Overall, the setting here is lovely, food presentation attractive and the cooking technique very good, but I wondered about the ingredient quality on several occasions; perhaps I have been spending too much time in Japan. Admittedly in the UK you cannot get fruit or vegetables to compare with those found in the markets of Japan or the Mediterranean, but I would hope that the ingredient quality would have been higher given the fairly steep price point of the meal. However, Cliveden is certainly a very pleasant overall experience.