Editor's note: Michael Wignall moved to Gidleigh Park in early 2016. The restaurant is now The Latymer.
Pennyhill Park is a sprawling (123 acre) country house hotel and spa in Surrey. The Latymer is its main restaurant and is in the manor house, which was built in 1849. The dining room has exposed beams and well-spaced tables, high quality cutlery and glassware and no distracting music. The tasting menu was £78, while three course costs £58. Dishes were unashamedly elaborate and luxurious, as we shall see.
The 18 page wine list was carefully chosen but expensive. Dog Point Pinot Noir 2007 was £62 for a wine that costs £16 retail, and Craiglee Chardonnay 2005 was £52 for a wine that costs £15 in the shops. At the higher end of the list the percentage, if not the absolute, mark-ups are less steep, with Ridge Montebello 2004 £180 for a wine you can buy for around £68, Vega Sicilia Unico 1994 £390 for about £227. This is a list with a very high gross profit margin built in, of around 76%, higher than most Mayfair restaurants. For example the Dog Point wine is, when you factor in service, four-and-a-half times its retail price. Bread is made from scratch and appears in a wooden rack with a little paper wrapping and seal. All very grand, though the bread itself, slice of white, brown coriander and black olive (which was the best) did not seem to me particularly impressive: texture was reasonable, but flavour was rather muted (the olive bread was the best); this, as we will see, presaged a recurring theme in the kitchen.
Amuse-bouches consisted of spheres of Bloody Mary cocktail which you eat in one go, technically clever. Prawn sesame toast was an odd choice, as although quite light this really was little more than you would see in your neighbourhood Chinese restaurant. I enjoyed a fried sphere of butternut squash risotto (nice texture but more seasoning would have helped) and a very good aubergine caviar. Dips of goat cheese, crème fraiche and red pepper was flavoured with a hint of truffle, and worked well. Breadsticks were decent, though not a patch on the ones at, say Zafferano. A rather mixed bag (15/20 average).
Ballotine of grouse was in itself excellent, served with a little smoked duck, tiny pieces of beetroot, which gave a welcome balance, and a butternut squash sorbet (16/20). Tuna was rolled out as a cannelloni shape, with lime and soy sauce, a thin presse of octopus, ginger marshmallow and Oscietra caviar. For me this was the most successful dish of the night, since the Asian flavours worked well with the tuna and in this case came through well (17/20).
Roast calves sweetbread was accompanied by tiny Hereford snails, a rather spongy Comte fondu, black-eyed peas, pumpkin puree and a supposedly spiced veloute (which lacked spice). I found the combination of elements was logical, but the flavours were rather subdued (15/20). Hand-dived scallops were offered with poached quail egg, apple, cider and walnuts with an apple emulsion, and a sliver of summer truffle. The scallops were cooked well but seemed not to be seasoned, and what could have been quite interesting flavours just melded into blandness (14/20). A piece of warm sardine was served with a lightly cooked Scottish langoustine, with rather greasy tiny olive and anchovy beignets and braised fennel (14/20). Poached and roast Challons duck was served with Agen prunes, coriander gnocchi, Shimiji mushrooms and jasmine jus. I am not sure that the jasmine tea jus was a good idea, and the duck, while cooked pink, was under-seasoned (14/20).
Instead of a cheese board there was a mousse of Crottin du Perigord with a cucumber film, honey pecan, pear picked in red wine and a pear crisp. This was technically skilled and pleasant (15/20). Roast fig with chestnut panna cotta, date cake, port jelly, honey and lavender ice cream suffered from figs that had very little flavour, and so contributed mainly a mushy texture; this was surprising given the generally high standard of ingredients elsewhere in the meal (12/20).
A “continental breakfast” consisted of a smear of pink grapefruit jelly, yoghurt sorbet, pain perdu with cinnamon, a parfait of cornflakes, a tiny and under-acidic lemon curd pancake and a little foam of pain au chocolat, which had the issue that frequently afflicts foams: not tasting enough of its core ingredient. In general, apart from the grapefruit, flavours again barely came through (13/20). Better was a chocolate fondant, moist in the centre though not actually runny (with a little popping candy inside), with a pineapple beignet, coconut sorbet and sabayon (15/20).
Coffee, which I believe are modules from a Nespresso machine, was excellent, dark and strong (18/20). A large plate of petit fours comprised bitter chocolate and hazelnut fondant, raisin fudge, pop-corn marshmallow, white chocolate and lychee truffle, bubblegum marshmallow, macaroons, plum pate de fruit, rhubarb pate de fruit, dandelion and burdock marshmallow, Dujar, nougat de Motelimar, cinnamon doughnuts, sesame tuile, poppy seed biscuit and liquorice chocolate cigarette. These were nicely made, and I particularly liked the doughnuts (16/20).
The bill for the tasting menu with wine pairing came to £150 a head (and that was with one diner drinking only water) which for me seems an awful lot of money for what was delivered, despite the considerable effort the kitchen has obviously put in. Manager Bruno Asselin has a long track record at top restaurants; I remember him as a sommelier at Pied A Terre before he ran Pharmacy in Notting Hill towards the end. He is excellent, and the service throughout the evening was smooth and effective. This is very elaborate cooking, with many elements on each plate, which is hard for the kitchen. Presentation was very attractive throughout, and ingredients are of high quality.