The Olive Tree restaurant is in the basement of the Queensberry Hotel, which is quite near the Royal Crescent in Bath. The restaurant has been running in one form or another for several decades, but for the last ten years has been in the hands of Chris Cleghorn, who trained at Gidleigh Park and The Fat Duck. The room is quite modern and has well-spaced tables. You can choose from a six or nine course tasting menu (£120), or indeed just pick two or three courses to make up a menu as you wish e.g., the eel dish was £27. This is the route that we went, picking three savoury courses as we didn’t really fancy the desserts.
The wine list had 147 labels and ranged in price from £26 to £400, with a median price of £58 and an average markup to retail price of 3.7 times, a factor that would cause outrage in Mayfair, never mind in Somerset. For example Picpoul de Pinet Delsol 2020 at £38 compared to a retail price of £9 is hard to defend. There were certainly some interesting choices, with one wine from Japan and a rose from Lebanon (and another from Wales) in amongst more conventional choices. Sample references were Allan Scott Sauvignon Blanc 2019 at £38 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £12, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling 2016 at £60 compared to its retail price of £16, and Chartogne-Taillet Champagne at £90 for a wine that will set you back £34 in the high street. For those with the means there was Bruno Collin Chassagne Montrachet 2019 at £150 compared to its retail price of £50, and Chateau Pichon Longeuville Comtesse de Lalande 2002 at £400 for a wine whose current market value is £137. Wine pairings were available at £60 for the six-course or £78 for the nine-course menu.
A canape of a slice of cured duck ham was simple but enjoyable, enlivened with Sarawak pepper. Tempura aubergine with lime dust was less successful, being surprisingly oily. Perhaps I have spent too much time in tempura bars in Tokyo, but this was not good (average 13/20). My starter of eel from the Devon Eel company was presented in a ring of alternating leeks and eel, with a central creamy Gewurztraminer sauce flavoured with chicken stock and tarragon. This was excellent, the eel having lovely flavour, the rich sauce nicely balanced by the leeks (16/20). Bread, incidentally, was made from scratch in the kitchen and had good texture, served with excellent Ivy House butter.
Globe artichoke came with black garlic, dill oil and buttermilk sorbet and also worked well, the flavours complementing each other nicely (15/20). A dish of Charlotte potatoes was enriched with high quality kaluga caviar from top-notch supplier N25, the briny caviar contrasting nicely with the earthiness of the carefully cooked potatoes (15/20).
Calf sweetbreads were supplied by butcher Walter Rose of Devizes. These were pan-roasted in butter and served with salted lemon, mint, black garlic and ricotta cheese. The sweetbreads were crisp on the outside and lovely and light inside, and the ricotta was an unusual but quite interesting pairing for the delicate flavour of the offal (16/20).
A Roscoff onion tart came with purple sprouting broccoli. The onions were lovely, enhanced by a little Coastal Cheddar and black truffle. The broccoli was carefully cooked, the only slight flaw in the dish being that the pastry went a little soggy at the bottom. Nonetheless this was an interesting an enjoyable dish, highlighting the top-quality onions (15/20).
My main course was venison, specifically fallow deer from Cornbury Park Estate (mentioned in the Doomsday Book and now owned by Lord Rotherwick). This came with celeriac, long pepper and winter truffles from Wiltshire truffles (actually these were from Spain rather than the woods of nearby Wiltshire). The venison had lovely flavour and was carefully cooked, its richness nicely contrasted by the earthy celeriac, with the pepper just lifting the flavour well (16/20).
The reason that we skipped dessert was that all three offerings had elements that the chef doubtless thought were inventive but I just found unappealing. One was a chicory dessert, the chocolate dessert had olive oil and perilla (shiso) and the citrus meringue had basil with it. I greatly dislike shrubbery in my desserts, and while I know that some do not, it seems odd for the menu to force these things on to the menu in literally every option – why not have at least one more classical offering for wimps like me who want something comforting rather than challenging at the final stage of the meal? The coffee at least was top notch, supplied by Difference Coffee and including the sublime Panama Gesha, the priciest coffee in the world at recent international auctions.
Service was very good, and the bill came to £158 per person including a single bottle of wine. If you went for three courses and shared a modest bottle of wine plus coffee then your bill might come to around £115, and clearly it would be higher if you opted for the long tasting menu. Other than the one dubious canape, the cooking of the savoury courses was very good. High grade produce was used, such as the top-notch caviar and classy venison, and the kitchen technique was in solid Michelin star territory.