Hambleton Hall dates back to 1881, and since the 1970s has enjoyed a view over the Rutland Water reservoir. The suave Tim Hart and his wife Stefa converted it to a hotel at the end of the 1970s, and since all the way back in 1982 it has held a Michelin star thanks to head chef Aaron Patterson, who has run the kitchen since 1992. As well as an immaculately maintained formal garden at the back of the house, Hambleton Hall has also a very extensive kitchen garden. This has a wide range of produce growing in it for use in the restaurant, including apricots, figs and courgette flowers. As an aside, Tim Hart’s sons Eddie and Sam are also in the restaurant business; after launching the very successful (in its day) Fino, they moved on to create Barrafina, and later The Drop in Kings Cross.
Back at Hambleton Hall, after doing a thriving takeaway business during the enforced shutdown in March through June, everything reopened in early July. Various Covid-19 related precautionary measures are now in place. Three courses from the a la carte menu are priced at £83 for dinner or weekend lunch, with a cheaper weekday lunch menu available at £42.50.
The wine list is extensive, with 320 bottles ranging in price from £31 to £850. The median price was £51 and the average mark-up to retail price was 2.4 times, which is distinctly generous by UK standards. Example wines were Eagle’s Nest Viognier Constantia 2018 at £45 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £23, Vermiglio Rosso di Montalcino Conti Costanti at 2014 at £71 compared to its retail price of £41, and Condrieu Clos Chanson André Perret 2016 at £99 for a bottle that will set you back £43 in a shop. At the prestige end of the list there was Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2013 at £230 compared to its retail price of £115, and the sublime Hermitage Domaine Jean-Louis Chave 1999 at £450 for a bottle whose current market value is £379. There was the odd relative bargain tucked away for those with the means, such as Chateau Lafon Meursault 2000 at £295 compared to its current shop price of £468. The Coravin system means that some of the grand wines are available by the glass too. Overall this was an excellent wine list, well put together and kindly priced.
We had a two-night stay at Hambleton Hall on this occasion, with two dinners involved. It was nice to see that menu changed entirely on the successive evenings, so there was need for any repetition of dishes. The dining room looks out over the gardens and down a gentle slope to Rutland Water. In good weather you can have drinks on the terrace before dinner. The dining room is carpeted and has generously spaced tables.
Our first dinner began with a few canapes. Cod brandade had good texture and was not overly salty, which it can so easily be. On a mixed seed tuile was chicken liver and foie gras parfait as well as a little yuzu gel. The parfait itself was rich and silky in texture, with the yuzu providing balancing acidity (16/20). A further nibble was lovage mousse with pea shoots and a few petals, along with toasted pumpkin seeds. The lovage was grown in the kitchen garden and had real striking depth of flavour, while the seeds provided a contrasting texture to the smooth mousse. This was most impressive (18/20).
Crab salad was a mix of brown and white crab meat combined with creme fraiche, gazpacho foam, a wrapping of cucumber and a garnish of oscietra caviar. Crab and cucumber is a classic flavour combination, and the touch of tomato from the gazpacho, along with the briny caviar combined flavours very effectively (17/20). Tartlet of Lincolnshire eel featured an delicate pastry base, the eel coming with leek, potatoes and a garnish of watercress and lovage, as well as batons of apple and leek. The eel had lovely flavour and the sharpness of the apple balanced its richness well; perhaps the overall effect was a touch dry, so maybe one more element would have been useful, but this was still a very enjoyable dish (16/20). Marinated scallops from the Isle of Skye were prettily presented, resting in a fennel and cucumber essence. The shellfish themselves had good natural sweetness, which worked well with the slight bitterness of the fennel (17/20).
Fillet of John Dory was precisely cooked and came with a courgette flower that had been grown in the garden, stuffed with a bisque of lobster and vanilla. The courgette flower was excellent and the lobster bisque good; for me the vanilla flavour could have been dialled down a touch, but the fish itself had lovely flavour (16/20). Beef came in two forms: fillet and “Jacobs Ladder” (short ribs), along with girolles, spinach and thinly sliced radishes as well as confit shallots. Shiitake mushroom ketchup and a red wine sauce completed the dish. The fillet itself was excellent and the short ribs, which can in less skilled culinary hands have challenging texture, were cooked long enough to bring out their considerable flavour and avoid any coarseness of texture. The spinach in particular made sure that the dish was not too rich overall (16/20).
A modern take on tiramisu was garnished with a delicate tuile and had good texture in itself, though for me a deeper coffee flavour would have improved things, while the overall effect was perhaps a touch dry (15/20). I preferred terrine of peach and raspberry with crème fraiche ice cream, a dish featuring ripe, high quality fruit with lovely flavour (17/20). Coffee was Guatemalan, from the excellent supplier Monmouth Coffee.
The meal on the second night started with a canape of potato leaf with sorrel purée and smoked salmon. The base was fairly crisp but the bitter sorrel flavour was a touch too strong for me. I much preferred polenta with smoked mayonnaise and bacon jam, whose richness contrasted well with the plain polenta, and even though this was arguably a touch salty I thought it was lovely (16/20 on average). Gazpacho came with celery granita, and this turned out to be a star dish. The tomatoes had superb flavour and the celery granita was a nice way to introduce this contrasting flavour to the dish. Seasoning was absolutely spot on and the overall effect was fabulous (easily 18/20).
Eel and leek ballotine came with little blobs of mayonnaise flavoured gently with wasabi. The texture of the ballotine was excellent, and the eel had excellent flavour. This seemed to me a rather more polished dish than the eel tartlet the night before (17/20). Fricassee of girolles peas and broad beans came with egg yolk and a little chorizo. The mushrooms worked very nicely with the delicate peas and beans, and these in turn balanced the richness of the egg. The chorizo added a stronger but controlled flavour; a delicate tuile completed the dish (17/20).
Slow-cooked octopus had tender flesh and came with delicate pasta coloured black by squid ink, as well as some nicely flavoured chorizo. The overall effect was completed by a gently spicy lemongrass and ginger sauce, which complemented the octopus very well (17/20). Roast Norfolk quail came with Florentine tortellini and fried quail eggs, with peas and girolles providing balance. The quail was carefully cooked and its delicate flavour came through beautifully. The pasta was a good vehicle for the Parmesan flavour, and the peas in particular lightened the dish (17/20). Wild sea bass fillet was pan-fried and served with prawns as well as fennel flavoured with vanilla. The sea bass had lovely flavour and was carefully cooked, the distinctive anise flavour of the fennel working nicely with the fish (16/20).
A selection of mostly British cheeses, including Cropwell Bishop Stilton, was in good condition. This was followed by a dessert of apricots with raspberries and almonds. The apricots had been grown in the kitchen garden were very ripe, served with a lovely raspberry coulis (17/20). Black currant soufflé was evenly cooked, light in texture and had plenty of fruit flavour (17/20).
Service was friendly, with the young staff coping well with the necessarily slightly more distanced service regime imposed by the limitations of a Covid-19 world. There were a couple of slips on the first night around remembering who had ordered what, but these were details that can easily be forgiven, and the staff made everyone feel very welcome. Overall Hambleton Hall provides one of the loveliest all-round English country house experiences that you could hope for. The building is charming, with its view over the water and fine gardens, the staff are welcoming and the food is appealing and skilfully executed.