Editor's note: chef Michael Caines left in late 2015, to be replaced by Michael Wignall. Mr Wignall is himself moving on in January 2018, to be replaced by Chris Simpson.
This used to be my favourite spot for a weekend away in the country. It is in a remarkably tranquil setting near the village of Chagford (for those coming by public transport, a taxi from Exeter station is the best bet). Here are notes from my most recent meals, on two successive nights in September 2008.
This was my first visit since the change of ownership when Paul henderson retired. Following the sale of Gidleigh Park there was a major refurbishment of the building about 18 months ago. A complete new section of the house had been added, but this has been done sympathetically (the building is listed) and very much in the style of the original place. There are now 24 bedrooms instead of 14 (some of these by the expedient of cutting some of the larger rooms in half) and there is now a large wine cellar and an extended dining room. Gidleigh Park always had a slightly magical atmosphere, as it felt like you were staying in a friend’s house rather than at a commercial premises. This relaxed atmosphere was partly due to the roaring wood fire always in evidence in the reception, the owner’s four cats (which either sat in front of the fire or occasionally stalked your amuse bouche), the lack of locks on the room doors and the especially charming front of house manager Catherine (who now runs the village delicatessen, Black’s). I was worried that this would be lost, but although cats no longer stalk your cheese straws, there are locks on the room doors and the wood fire has ceased roaring for now (due to problems with chimney fires) the new staff manage to maintain a very friendly atmosphere that is different, but still very welcoming.
The wine list used to be a remarkable thing, not only for its length and depth of Californian and Burgundian wines, but also its very kind mark-up policy (wines were charged at cost plus £12 - £30 only). Sadly this is no more, though at 5,000 bottles and 800 separate bins, the lists is still very impressive. The décor is less frilly than previously, and this I found an improvement. The dining room has a red carpet, a mixture of red and red and brown patterned upholstery and good lighting from directed ceiling spotlights. Villeroy and Boch crockery was used, and there was no muzak. Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen and consisted of a choice of pain de campagne, honey and brown bran rolls and (my favourite) a flaky tomato and black olive bread (18/20). The menu was £85 for a la carte and £95 for a tasting menu (there was also a vegetarian tasting menu).
The new sommelier is very young but is both enthusiastic and knows his wine. Mark-ups are, sadly, back to commercial reality, but mark-ups are generally kinder than top places in London, and vary significantly. Cuvee Frederich Emile 2001 was a decent enough £55 for a wine that costs £22 in the shops, Etienne Sauzet Puligny Montrachet 2001 was £140 for a wine you can buy for around £37, Jermann Vintage Tunina 2005 was £75 compared to retail price of £27, and Ridge Montebello 1998 was a more than fair £78 for a wine that costs nearly that retail. At the top end Latour 1988 is £520 for a wine that will cost you about £220. Climens 2003 is £90 for a half bottle compared to retail price of about £34.
While browsing the menu some nibbles appeared. An artichoke and truffle salad was pleasant but unexciting, but a smoked salmon mousse with cucumber was enjoyable, and better were a scallop with pea puree and a rich chicken boudin (average 17/20). This was followed by a further amuse bouche of chilled lobster jelly appeared, with rich flavour and smooth texture (17/20).
I began with Devon quail, cooked carefully and served off the bone, with a ravioli of spinach and Parmesan, purees of peas and parsley, a summer truffle garnish and quail eggs. The pasta had soft texture, the quail had good tastes and the purees also reflected their constituents effectively (17/20). Less successful was a lobster ravioli on a bed of cabbage with girolle mushrooms and diced tomatoes. The minced lobster inside the pasta rather lost its taste amongst the other flavours, though a single piece of lobster as garnish was tender (16/20).
For main course, sea bass was served with a courgette flower stuffed with scallop mousse, gazpacho and a garnish of a piece of lobster, fennel and asparagus. The fish was well timed and tasted excellent (17/20). I had turbot with scallops and pork belly, with pea puree and a fennel and bacon sauce. This was a complex dish that must have required very careful timing in the kitchen given its assorted components, and has a lot of flavours going on. Fortunately the combination of tastes was fairly harmonious, and both the turbot and scallops were very nicely cooked, though the pork belly was a little drier than ideal. Also strips of celery were boiled and were just watery; it would have been better to have fried them, in my view (17/20).
The extensive cheese board is 80% British, sourced from Paxton and Whitfield and Country Cheeses. These were in fine condition, with delights such as Ticklemoor, Capricorn Somerset, Viper’s Grass, Cornish Blue and many others, served by a cheese waiter who knew his produce (18/20). Apricot and almond nougatine parfait had good texture, served with apricot mousse and sorbet (17/20). I had hazelnut and milk chocolate parfait, dark chocolate mousse on a chocolate sable biscuit, with white chocolate ice cream. This was very prettily presented and the tastes were distinct and harmonious (18/20).
On the second night, nibbles were a pleasant mushroom fricassee (a few wild mushrooms fried in butter) with the mushrooms cooked well (17/20), an excellent piece of pink lamb with a fennel puree (18/20) and a crab salad with basil puree and mixed leaves (16/20). A white haricot bean soup was a further amuse bouche, the beans tender, the soup nicely flavoured with bacon (17/20). A tuna and scallop tartare on thin discs of beetroot and radish with wasabi also worked very well (17/20).
Ravioli of spinach and Parmesan with herb puree and quails egg from the vegetarian menu was pretty and had pasta with good texture, but was under-seasoned (16/20). Main course vegetable pot au feu with asparagus, peas, carrots and broad beans was correctly cooked but again was light on seasoning and tasted like a plate of pleasant vegetables, which of course it was. Although some vegetables are grown here, for this kind of dish to work you need spectacular vegetable produce, such as that at Le Manoir au Quat’ Saisons or in the Mediterranean. Otherwise it tastes, as here, merely pleasant (15/20).
I fared better from the main menu. My ballotine of foie gras was very good indeed, with smooth texture and great intensity of liver flavour, with Madeira jelly, green bean and summer truffle salad ( a strong 18/20, pushing 19/20). My main course was honey roast Cornish duckling, cooked pink and served on top of a bed of green cabbage and smoked bacon, with a garnish of baby turnips and garlic, with a very attractive, lightly spiced jus (18/20).
For dessert, strawberry mousse on a Palmier biscuit with strawberry jelly and sorbet was excellent, late season local strawberries tasting lovely, the textures all as they should be (17/20). Even better was a chocolate and griottine mousse with cherry parfait topped with poached cherries. This was a very pretty dish made with high quality chocolate and good cherries (18/20).
My observation on the two meals is that, compared to my many previous experiences under the old regime, there is a more even experience. Presentation is more elaborate now, and is genuinely classy (there are now 18 chefs, four more than previously, allowing more complex plating).
Desserts always used to be a weakness here, but although the pastry chef is the same, the standard has lifted significantly, with tastes now matching presentation. On the other hand, there were a few minor flaws in certain of the savoury dishes (under seasoning the vegetable main course) that virtually never happened when Michael Caines was in fuller attendance in the kitchen (he popped in on Monday morning but was not present at either dinner service today or yesterday). It is easy to be naïve about the presence of a head chef in the kitchen – it is not as if he cooks every dish, but the savoury courses seemed to be very polished but lack a certain spark that I recall ion the past, and this may be a matter of attention to detail. Ingredients were uniformly good, presentation was superb and the menu is very appealing, so these are minor quibbles only. These were still two very enjoyable meals. Service was excellent throughout.
Here are some notes from October 2004, before the ownership change.
The dozen or so rooms are each different, beautifully furnished, and you feel very well looked after by the charming Catherine. Chef Michael Caines excels at complex starters and main courses, the desserts never quite making it to the same level. For example, a Jerusalem artichoke and truffle soup was wonderfully fluffy and light yet intensely full of flavour. A pithivier of pigeon was expertly executed, sitting in a pool of Madeira sauce with a little truffle and wild mushroom mousse to add an additional texture. A main course pigeon was beautifully presented, the pigeon slices arranged in a sphere shape (rather like a Terrys chocolate orange) atop an excellent potato galette, with a little pan fried foie gras crowning the pigeon, all resting in a pool of Madeira sauce, with some excellent spinach and a few root vegetables at the side of the centrepiece. This tasted as good as it looked, the sauce deeply rich, the pigeon perfectly pink, the vegetables (grown in the gardens here) perfectly cooked.
The cheeses are mostly from Somerset and are in very good condition, with just a French goat cheese a nod to the continent. A hot tart with vanilla ice cream was prettily put together and was excellent, but without ever achieving the heights that the starters and main courses hit. The starters and main courses here are consistently 19/20 and at times 20/20, the desserts mostly 17/20 or sometimes 16/20. Service can be very good but can also slip at times. The wine list is a delight, as there is a maximum £30 mark up per bottle, on a sliding scale starting at £12. Hence you may as well order some nice wine from the vast cellar here, as you are not going to be ripped off. For this particular meal we indulged with some Kistler Vine Hill 1991 and some Chateau de Fargues 1983. Gidleigh Park changed ownership and underwent major refurbishment recently. Hopefully its high standards and kind wine pricing will survive.