The Paris House in Woburn is set in a 22-acre deer park, an estate of the Duke of Bedford. You enter through a grand stone arch and drive past assorted deer (ten different breeds live here) to the house itself. Executive chef Phil Fanning worked at Danesfield House and then at l’Ortolan, taking over as head chef at The Paris House in 2010. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 2011, which it has kept ever since (editor's note - it finally lost it in the 2017 guide). Mr Fanning bought out previous owner Alan Murchison in 2014 and guides the kitchen brigade with his head chef Paul Lobban.
The dining room is simply decorated, carpeted and with fairly well spaced tables covered in white tablecloths. At capacity there are typically just 32 diners, though there is also a private dining room and a chef’s table too. Illumination was from a single pretty red glass chandelier, and the overall lighting effect was distinctly murky, it being tricky to read the menu unless you happen to be a bird of prey. The photos reflect the gloom, my camera sending me a message symbol that appeared to mean “Why don’t you just try infra-red and be done with it, sonny?”. In the evening there is a choice of either a six, eight or ten course tasting menu (£75, £82 and £99 respectively), with a cheaper £39 option at lunch. There are full vegetarian versions available, and we were told that the chef enjoys the challenge in dealing with menu substitutions e.g. for gluten-free vegans.
The wine list had just over 100 labels, ranging in price from £28 to £262 with a median price of £52. Mark-ups ranged from excessive to outrageous, averaging 3.8 times the retail price (plus service), a level that would raise hackles in Mayfair, never mind Woburn. Example labels were Rioja Rosado Bodegas Vivanco 2012 at £39 for a wine with a market price of £8, Châteauneuf du Pape Château Saint Jean 2010 at £83 for a wine with a shop price of £22, and d’Arenberg ‘The Dead Arm’ 2008 at a ludicrous £109 for a wine that retails at £29. Mercurey 'Les Vaux', Domaine Jacqueson 2010 was an obscene £105 for a wine that averages £21.60 in a shop. Even the obscure corners of the list offered no relief, with the excellent Château Musar 2003 at £85 compared to a shop price of £23. The pricing of this wine list makes miserable reading for anyone who enjoys a glass with their meal. Fortunately corkage at £20 a bottle was possible.
An array of nibbles began the meal. Pigskin puff crackers were crisp and pleasant, as were crackers of tapioca, red pepper, paprika and herbs. These came with a dip made with duck egg and gherkin, which had a nice kick of pickle. Finally there were lollipops of chicken kofta and mango salsa, a sweet potato kofta and salmon and beetroot lolly. The kofta was excellent, the crackers fine (14/20). Two breads were offered, both made from scratch in the kitchen. Soda bread had good texture while rosemary focaccia had a different texture to a classical focaccia, but had a good hint of herb flavour and was none the worse for being a little unusual (15/20).
Gyoza duck dumpling was served with a tom yum broth, pickled duck tongue and squid noodles. The noodles were well-made and the duck had plenty of flavour, the spicing well controlled (easily 14/20). Spiced lentils with mango lassi, durian and jackfruit sounds like a weird idea, but worked remarkably well. The lentils were great and the fruit flavours were very harmonious. with the potentially overwhelming durian mercifully subtle (16/20).
Hamashi (sic), which is usually spelt hamachi is amberjack, and was served as sashimi, with red dulse (a type of seaweed), olive oil and miso sorbet. The fish was excellent and the sorbet went really well with it, the dressing excellent with just the right level of acidity (16/20). Mackerel came with its belly deep fried and seared loin, served with oyster leaf, dill and cucumber. This was a nice dish, the flavour combination logical (15/20).
Partridge came with chestnuts, trompette de la mort mushrooms, bisque and a radish salad. This was an enjoyable dish, the bird having plenty of flavour (15/20). This was followed by red mullet, octopus and rouille in a sort of bouillabaisse. The mullet was good, the octopus could have been tenderer but there was a nice hint of spice in the sauce (14/20).
Sicilian red prawn came with Romesco (pepper and nut) sauce, linguini, cobnuts and olives. The sauce worked well, the nuts of good quality, though I have tasted better red prawns than this (14/20). My main course was Moroccan mutton with aubergine and couscous, flavoured with harissa. The meat had excellent flavour and the spice mix was really well judged, nicely lifting the dish (16/20).
A fig was served with bacon jam, the fruit prepared in a muslin bag with a cigar to give a hint of smoke flavour; I not sure about the latter, but the bacon jam was excellent (14/20). A strawberry dessert had fruit with unusually good flavour, served with clotted cream ice cream, candied strawberries and lime. The citrus element worked really well, but the candied strawberries had a rather chewy texture (14/20). Baked mango custard tart had white chocolate pastry and mango parfait. This was a natural combination of flavours, the tropical fruits good, the pastry delicate (15/20.
The bill came to £119 a head, including corkage. If you went for a shorter menu and could find a modestly priced bottle of wine to share (best of luck with that) then a typical bill might come to £110 a head all in. Service was excellent: friendly and capable. I enjoyed the inventive cooking at Paris House, its young kitchen team clearly having considerable talent. While inevitably during a long tasting menu some dishes will work better than others, the balance of flavours was consistently skilful, and the dish ideas sometimes sounding scarily original but generally holding together very well on the plate. This is cooking worthy of its handsome location; it is just a pity about the wine pricing.