Eating out at Hintlesham Hall
PUBLISHED: 17:32 19 March 2018 | UPDATED: 17:32 19 March 2018
In a nod to its former flamboyant owner, Hintlesham Hall has renamed its restaurant Carrier's. Tessa Allingham tried it for lunch
A couple of years ago, Graham Macgregor, incoming general manager at Hintlesham Hall, planted a few rows of sweetcorn and some beans in the kitchen garden of the hotel. They promptly died. So, in an apparent fit of pique mixed with a determination not to be beaten by vegetables, he bulldozed the lot, dug in several tonnes of mushroom compost and manure, and started again.
“We had some incredible radicchio and rocket last year, and the radishes were delicious,” Graham says. “I really get quite excited about what we can recreate here!”
Recreate is the operative word, for this kitchen garden is the one that Robert Carrier, former owner of the hotel, original celebrity chef and bon viveur, sketched out and planted back in the 1970s, when Hintlesham Hall was his. Over the years it has been, if not abandoned, then certainly not used to its full potential.
January is not the time to visit any garden. Imagination is required to picture the hedged area to the side of the hotel where some 40 medicinal, culinary and sensory herbs will grow, where the beans will scramble energetically, and where the heritage tomatoes will feel the sun on their skins.
A netted area will protect berries and currants, and several beds will contain baby carrots and leeks, plenty of Swiss chard, dark curly cavolo nero, and rows of leafy salads. A cutting garden will provide seasonal flowers for the hotel, and there will be an autumnal abundance of squash, apples, pears and Jerusalem artichokes.
There’s even a space set aside for the local primary school to grow vegetables. Head chef Alan Ford has worked closely with Graham on the planting scheme.
He’s quietly spoken, not one for Carrier-esque flamboyance, but he knows what he wants, and is looking forward to living that chef dream of writing a menu according to what’s perfectly ripe in the garden, and stepping out of his kitchen door to pick the ingredients.
My visit in January falls on a ponderous, rain-lashed day of leaden skies. I want warmth for lunch, but also lightness, colour, and a jolt of taste, a winter livener.
Alan gave it to me. A carpaccio of vegetables – translucent ribbons of carrot, turnip, fennel, beetroot piled under a tangle of micro leaves, ticked the colour box, and the taste was lifted with sweet-sharp citrus and perky, aniseedy dill.
Butter-soft, pink-cooked haunch of venison was the sort of meat that makes you think nicer thoughts about January. It was the highlight on a plate that included challengingly pink cranberry and sage mash, and a fabulously intense port reduction.
To finish? Swoon over chocolate if you must (a milk chocolate delice with caramel ice cream and salted caramel sauce from the set menu will tempt chocaholics). I was happier with a lime, ginger and cream cheese fool with pineapple and a crumb crunch, a dessert that stayed the tart side of sweet.
A short shock of an espresso meant I could work after the meal, rather than sink into a food coma by the fire.
There’s something beautifully anachronistic about eating here. It’s a place that doesn’t turn its back on its country house hotel history. The panelled walls in the two dining rooms are hung with portraits of wistful women in silk and strong-jawed men in scarlet, the drapes are heavy, and the tables are dressed with floor-length cloths.
Floorboards creak satisfyingly under the carpet. Waiters – they are excellent – crumb-down discreetly, slide empty plates away efficiently, swoop on a dropped napkin before you’ve even missed it.
And yet things are changing, driven by the Modi family who have gradually improved the property since buying it in 2015 – it is they who built the spa and are now adding 20 new bedrooms and sympathetically refurbishing other parts of the hotel.
This spring, the restaurant has quietly, discreetly, adopted a new name – Carrier’s – as a way of positioning it as a stand-alone destination. The set lunch menu is gently being promoted too. At £33.50 for three courses and £27.50 for two it’s not the cheapest in town, but it does include three choices at each course, plus canapés, a glass of wine, mineral water and tea or coffee.
It’s popular, I’m told. Elsewhere on the menu, there’s salad, soup, fish – or steak – and chips. “These are the dishes that get people in,” says Alan. Does this not make him sad, coming as he does from such a classical background?
Alan’s loyal 30 years at Hintlesham were preceded by jobs in London’s grand hotels, prepping racks of lamb for 2,000 at the Grosvenor, or working as one of Anton Mosimann’s eight sous chefs at the Dorchester.
He skirts the question. “These dishes sell really well. Having them on the menu makes the restaurant accessible, appeals to a new audience and that’s important. I’ve had to adapt. When I first came here, hotels were the only place you’d go to eat well. Good neighbourhood restaurants didn’t exist. Now we have a lot of competition.
“The menu I took on in 1988 was very different – there were no salted tuiles [now on a dinner menu starter of caramelised scallops and salsify] for example.”
Alan doesn’t let go of the classics, though – and, looking round the dining room this lunchtime, nor do today’s guests. An adjacent party tucks into a smoked chicken, courgette and tarragon terrine with celeriac purée, and a haddock, horseradish, leek and potato chowder.
They follow it with slow-cooked duck leg with savoy cabbage and a plum sauce, and a fillet of seabass with crushed new potatoes and gremolata. Gone forever though are the days when the hall’s shoot (every Friday in the season) would result in a cellar hung with pheasant, partridge, woodcock in the feather.
“I used to pluck and prep them all after service. You can’t do that these days – they all arrive prepped.” There’s no longer a shoot on the estate either, he adds, quietly.
But onward! With a new name to the restaurant, and a menu that will continue to appeal to a wider audience, and no doubt celebrate kitchen garden produce in due course, this is no time to dwell on the past. A tasty future beckons.