The Vineyard is a modern low-rise building, built around the original, much smaller, guest house. The dining room was reached through a cosy and attractive lounge, and resembles a conservatory. Its curved, high windows look out onto an artificial pond that has gas burners embedded in it, so that flames appear to be floating on the surface of the water. The dining room is on two levels, the lower level looking directly out onto the pond, while a short flight up are a range of tables looking down into the main dining area. Be aware that the head chef at the time of this review, John Campbell, has since moved on, so the review should be treated with the appropriate caution.
Tables were large and generously spaced. Each was covered with a good quality white linen tablecloth that was presumably ironed on, given the total absence of creases. Chairs were upholstered in dark beige with a green net pattern; there was also a banquette along one side of lower part of the room, in purple with a variety of cushions. Each table had very long-stemmed lilies in a tall glass vase, while on the central table was a display of birds of paradise flowers. Service was from formally dressed waiters and was very classy: just on one occasion I had to ask for water to be topped up but otherwise the service was just about faultless. As you peruse the menu you are offered very high quality olives and salted almonds. The main dining has a stone tiled floor, while the ceiling and walls are cream. On this sunny day the extensive windows let in plenty of natural light, supplemented by a skylight. There were overhead spot lights for dinner illumination. Three courses were £65 (without service) or there was a tasting menu at £85, and a Sunday lunch special at £29.50
Amuse-bouche was an espuma of peas, served in a small glass, atop a little bacon jelly. The pea liquid has plenty of fresh pea flavour, though could have been rather warmer than it was, while the bacon jelly had reasonable texture though perhaps could have had slightly more intense flavour (16/20). One small service lapse was that we had been asked on reserving whether we had any dietary restrictions or preferences, and they had noted that my wife did not eat meat; this preference was repeated when we placed our order. Despite this they still served the bacon jelly. This was hardly a major issue, but if they are going to take the trouble of asking for preferences then I would have thought they could try to take note of them.
The wine list covered 92 pages; it must be one of the most extensive in the UK, with 2,000 bottles in all. As befits someone who owns a vineyard in California, the list has particularly extensive coverage of the wines of this state, which gets 20 pages of coverage alone. The rare and exceptional Kistler Hyde Vineyard 1999 was available, at £190 against a retail price of under £50 if you could actually find it. Another rarity was the over-hyped Screaming Eagle 1995 at £1,600. Back in the old world growers are carefully chosen. Even Germany got a look in, for example with a JJ Prum Auslese 1995 at £85 (retail £17). There was extensive coverage of France, and not just the classics e.g. the excellent Mas de Daumas Gassac 2005 is listed at £58 (v £14 retail), though the Alsace section could be improved. A relative bargain on the list was Boon Doon Cigare Blanc 2004 at £45 (retail price £13.40). There were six pages of sweet wine and over 20 wines by the glass. There was no house wine as such, but there was one wine listed at £25, which was the cheapest that I noticed.
Risotto of Cornish crab had good arborio rice which had absorbed a fish stock and had suitable creamy texture. There were also a few tiny dice of tomatoes to add a little colour to the dish. My quibble was that there was actually hardly any crab at all in the risotto; though a costly ingredient, it was barely present at all. The other oddity was a large dollop of cold crème fraiche was placed on top of the risotto. This was not a good idea at all, as this started to melt and was an entirely unnecessary addition to the risotto, whose rice was creamy enough in texture on its own. 16/20 for the quality of the risotto itself, though I was tempted to knock a mark off for this and the lack of crab.
Better was a summer salad. This consisted of very fresh baby leaves, a few pickled morels, baby artichoke, little pieces of roast potato and pieces of sun-dried tomatoes along with a balsamic dressing. The ingredients were of very good quality, though I was a little surprised to see sun-dried tomatoes on a modern menu. Still 17/20 overall.
Organic chicken was served as two small pieces with skin attached, resting in a little pool of the cooking juices augmented by a little red wine, as well as a little mashed potato and three little balls of stuffing. The chicken itself was cooked very well and had nice, crispy skin, though the quality of the chicken itself was not the very highest, lacking the flavour of something like poulet Bresse, for example. The mash was quite smooth and the stuffing added an extra dimension of flavour that was necessary given the rather ordinary chicken (16/20). Some people might quibble with the very modest portion of size of the chicken.
Fish and chips were a very fine rendition of this classic dish. The haddock was tasty, the flakes of fish cooked through just right, and the batter light and crispy. Chips were crisp and had good texture, while for me the most impressive element were the mushy peas. These were made from high quality peas and had excellent texture, still retaining some texture of the peas (17/20). There was a very good home-made tomato relish to accompany the fish.
Alongside the main courses was an array of vegetables. Best were two excellent roast potatoes, beautifully cooked and seasoned, good cauliflower and some more mash. Also good was lightly cooked spring cabbage, but carrots were an aberration, being seriously overcooked. Horseradish and mustard were also served.
Strawberry "cheesecake" was not in the classic style but actually served as a creamy concoction with strawberries at the base, topped with crumbs of hobnob biscuits (according to the waitress) and a separate crème fraiche ice cream. Though unusual, the taste of the cheesecake mix was good, although I am not convinced by the biscuit crumbs (16/20 at best).
Much better was a classic lemon posset, in the centre of which were a few fresh blueberries. This dish, though a simple concoction of cream, sugar and lemon, is rarely executed well. It needs precision in the amount of lemon juice added, and here it was virtually perfect, having silky smooth texture and a lovely balance of sweetness and acidity (19/20).
Both filter coffee and espresso were of high quality (17/20) served with some unusual petit fours. There was a truffle flavoured with bergamot, sticks of chocolate with a merlot grape flavour but also vinegar, and pyramids of "macaroons" of ginger and coriander, as well as a red pepper jelly. The technical execution was very good, with the jelly combining distinct taste of the pepper with smooth texture, though I am not sure that vinegar is a particularly harmonious flavour match for chocolate. Coffee and the petit fours are a hefty £4.25 each.
One minor irritation was that, although the filter coffee was served in a generous cafeteiere, the double espresso was very small, and I asked for a refill. When the bill came they had charged £8.50 for this. Given that an espresso has a margin cost of at most 30p, and that the £4.25 is presumably mostly for the chocolates, this seemed remarkably petty. It was not as if they brought another tray of petit fours with the second espresso; after some debate this was removed from the bill, but it seems an insensitive way to treat your customers. I frequently ask for extra espresso and I cannot recall being charged for a refill in a good restaurant.
By comparison, here is a meal from 2002.
My starter was the best dish of the day: organic salmon "tournedos", served simply on a bed of puy lentils, topped with a sliver of grilled foie gras. The salmon was of high quality and had excellent texture, moist and with good flavour. The lentils were carefully cooked and were lightly spiced, tender and giving an earthy counterpoint to the fleshy salmon. The foie gras added a dimension of richness (18/20).
A risotto of smoked haddock had correctly made, creamy risotto with distinct flakes of well-timed haddock; this was topped with a bold creation – a grain mustard sherbert. I am not a fan of special-effect cooking, but the mustard flavour came through well here and complemented the haddock (16/20).
I had a Goosnargh duck (a local one) served as two breasts of duck on top of a duck confit. This was served with a little heap of good mash, a few prunes and "garbure". Garbure is a peasant soup from the Gascon and Basque regions of France but here appeared as a sauce for the duck. Its name is from the basque "garbe" for sheaf or bunch, since it is in effect a stew made of a bunch of vegetables, though modern recipes often add pork. This was a novel enough idea – clearly the chef enjoys his variations, and here it worked well. The duck was very tender, served pink, and the confit was rich. A little lime jus added slight acidity to offset the richness of the confit. Again, a well conceived dish with harmonious ingredients, even if delivered in an unusual way (17/20).
Less successful was a fillet of roast sea bass, a surprisingly small fillet resting on a butter bean puree flavoured with thyme and vanilla. The sea bass was good but by no means special, and here I felt that the introduction of the vanilla flavour did not work in a complementary way with the butter bean puree. A few unannounced French beans and some pieces of artichoke heart added some colour, but the bass rested on a bed of cooked lettuce, which is rarely a good idea in itself and did not add anything here (15/20).
There is no cheese board, but there is a selection of cheeses. These arrived without ceremony or explanation, and were in extremely good condition. Epoisses is a difficult cheese to get in correct condition, and here it was at its best, just before it becomes runny and overwhelming. Similarly Comte was sweet, St Nectaire opulent and Faume d’Ambert good. Cheeses were easily 17/20, pushing 18/20. As well as bread there were also some unusual home-made crackers – a dark one flavoured with tarragon, and a light one tasting very distinctly of celeriac.
A praline parfait was well made in itself, served next to a well-textured orange and caramel jelly. Left to its own devices this dish would have been 16/20, but unfortunately all components were obliterated by a frothy basil sauce, which overwhelmed the other tastes. There were even shreds of basil in the orange jelly. This was quite unnecessary shock-effect cooking, the worse since it was unannounced on the menu.
A tarte tatin of apple fortunately had no lurking savoury surprises, and consisted of good pastry and dessert apples. This was capably made, served with a technically competent but slightly dull crème fraiche ice cream (16/20). A lemon thyme foam managed to avoid distracting too much from the primary components of the dish, but did not really add anything either.
Coffee, both filter and espresso, was of high quality (17/20). Petit fours consisted of a raspberry chocolate, a simple tuile, a truffle that rather quaintly was flavoured with Baileys, a slightly over-crisp lemon tart topped with a blueberry, a dull Madeleine and a good Parmesan tuile. These varied somewhat but were probably 17/20 overall, the only one letting the side down technically being the Madeleine.