Fernando and Kirsty Stovell opened this restaurant in a 16th century Tudor farmhouse in Chobham in 2012, taking over the premises that use to house The Cloched Hat restaurant. Both owners have a background as chefs, having previously worked at clubs including the private members Wellington Club in Knightsbridge and nightclub The Cuckoo Club in Swallow Street. As well as cooking, they distil their own gin. Mr Stovell is also one of the few chefs I am aware of with a degree in international relations. He wasn’t here on the night I visited, but the head chef, who was working that night, is Kyle Robinson. Kyle worked previously as chef de partie at Sonny’s Kitchen, The Gilbert Scott and Odettes in London, and before that at Foliage.
The wine list ranged in price from £22 right up to £4,500 for the Romanee Conti Le Montrachet 2009, which actually costs £4,114 to buy in a shop. The list had quite broad scope, featuring wines from as far afield as Romania, Brazil and even Japan. The Franschoek Cellar Old Museum Merlot 2014 was £42 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £10, Châteauneuf du Pape Château Saint Jean 2012 was £70 compared to a retail price of £32, and Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay 2010 was £152 for a bottle that will set you back £65. There are a few wines by the glass but additionally there is a premium "by the glass" list on request (they use the Coravin technology to be able to open some costly bottles and still preserve the wine). For example the glorious Vega Sicilia Unico 2007 was available at £44 for a regular glass. This sounds a lot but at an effective price of £264 a bottle it is not bad given that you actually have to pay £198 for this wine in a wine merchant.
The age of the building means that the dining room ceiling is low, but the room being carpeted meant that noise levels were reasonable even at this packed service. Tables were decently spaced and covered with white linen tablecloths, and there are a few tables outside for drinks in clement weather. The dining room, whose walls are painted a taupe colour, can seat around 60 customers when full. A leg of Spanish ham is proudly displayed in the dining room. Three courses were priced at £45, or there was a tasting menu available at £78.
It seemed a pity not to try that pata negra, which was from Salamanca from a supplier called Case de Alba and aged for two years and five months. An array of nibbles appeared to begin the meal. A tapioca crisp was a modern take on pico de gallo salad, the crisp made from dehydrated onion and tomato with a chilli sauce (Valentina) offered on the side. The crisp had excellent texture and was an interesting idea. It came with a variant on guacamole, in this case ripe avocado with wood sorrel instead of lime. Warm courgette and poblano pepper soup was served in a glass topped with a tortilla of avocado, refried beans and feta cheese. This was an interesting idea but the good soup was rather let down by a stale-tasting tortilla. I enjoyed these nibbles, especially the crisp, which was technically interesting but above all had excellent flavour (14/20 average).
A variety of breads, including olive and also a walnut bread, were bought in rather than made in the kitchen but were excellent. They were supplied by a company called Swiss Bread, whose breads are made in a wood-fired oven, and all the slices that I tried had lovely texture (16/20).
Crab was prettily presented and was shell-free, with a peach jelly, fennel, dill, grapefruit, borrage flowers and a squid ink tapioca crisp. This looked great and the crab was lovely with the grapefruit a logical accompaniment, but the peach jelly was hard to detect and the squid ink tapioca crisp was, well, not crisp (13/20).
Better was Anjou quail with maple syrup, girolle puree and a whole girolle, freeze-dried blackberries and raspberries, sweet corn and some pickled artichoke. A few rose petals were scattered on the table at this point, at which point it became clear that there was a whole backstory to this dish. It apparently is inspired by a novel by Laura Esquivel called “Like Water for Chocolate” (made into a film by Alfonso Arau) that features a quail in rose petal sauce made by the lovesick main character that has an incendiary effect on her sister when she, instead of her heart’s desire, eats it. Anyway, to get back to the food, the quail was nicely cooked and had good flavour and the fruits were a logical accompaniment. The sauce had a mix of ancho and chipotle chile, almonds, mushrooms and rose petals to make a mole purée texture. My only minor quibble was the pickling juices that were used were too astringent, and were a bit jarring in an otherwise well balanced dish (between 14/20 and 15/20).
A raviolo was made from huitlacoche, a fungus known as the Mexican corn truffle or more endearingly, corn smut. It has a smoky, earthy flavour. The dish also had grilled poblano peppers and cheese curds, onion and rocket with dehydrated ash from the corn husk. The pasta was quite thin and delicate and the rocket was of high quality, but the dish was almost cold when it arrived, which was a pity. If it had been hot it would have been 14/20 level but serving at the correct temperature is a pretty basic issue that made the dish less enjoyable than it should have been to eat.
Turbot was nicely cooked and came with fermented Savoy cabbage, radish, oyster mushroom, nasturtium leaves and a lemongrass beurre blanc. The turbot had good flavour and went well with the mushrooms and fairly subtle lemongrass taste of the sauce (15/20).
The best dish of the meal was guinea fowl on a blue corn tortilla served with tomatillos (Mexican husk tomatoes) with mole verde sauce, tomatillo and red kidney bean puree. The green mole sauce, made with green herbs and poblano peppers, tomatillos and spices, worked well with the bird. As well as the roast quail breast there was confit leg, the dish completed by the cooking juices poured over at the table. The guinea fowl was carefully cooked and the sauce worked really well with it, the gentle spices enhancing the flavour of the meat, the tortilla adding an extra texture (16/20). On the side, purple sprouting broccoli was lightly cooked, and chips fried in duck fat good though under-salted.
A pre-dessert of tropical fruit sorbet was flavoured with vanilla and had good texture and plenty of refreshing fruit flavor (15/20). It did not need the decorative sprig of red vein sorrel as a garnish. On the side, steamed purple sprouting broccoli was excellent, and chips made with duck fat were good, albeit under-salted.
Rhubarb was apparently cooked in the earth that it was grown, and served with white chocolate custard, covered with a layer of delicate sugar tuile. The base also included shortbread biscuits and rhubarb jelly and was scented with oak smoke. Rhubarb sorbet was placed on top of the tuile cap of the dish. This was a quite elaborate dish and the rhubarb was not too sharp, the smoke not overly intrusive (easily 14/20).
I preferred a simpler dish of blackcurrant cheesecake served with sour cream ice cream and mixed berries. The fruit flavour was really well judged, and the texture of the cheesecake was excellent (16/20). Petit fours comprised a raspberry financier, something introduced as a choux pastry with cream but actually a wet choux (a Mexican recipe from the Mr Stovell's grandmother) that tasted more like a sponge, along with a toffee and a dark chocolate. These were pleasant rather than outstanding (13/20).
Coffee was from a company called A.E. Stanton in Willesden and was decent enough. Service was excellent, led by the charming Thomas Mercier, who previously worked at Cliveden, amongst other places. The bill came to £150 a head, but this was distorted due to my indulging somewhat heavily in the wine list. If you had three courses and shared a modest bottle then a typical cost per head might be around £80.
Overall I enjoyed my meal at Stovell’s. The best dishes, such as the quail, were clearly in 1 star Michelin territory, and the only issue that I had with the meal was its inconsistency. The cheesecake was great, but the petit fours were ordinary and the raviolo was delivered almost cold. I also had a feeling that the kitchen was pulling its punches with the Mexican flavours in order to not spook the local Surrey dining clientele. For me they could have been bolder when using these ingredients and spices. Nonetheless, the cooking here is innovative and the kitchen is clearly making an effort to incorporate Mexican influences into the otherwise British food, and generally succeeds. It is well worth a look, especially in a county not exactly overburdened by high-class restaurants.