Tuesday, 5 August 2014
Day Two, and with the sun still shining and after a brief diversion to giggle at the Cerne Abbas giant on the journey from Yeovil, we arrived in the market town of Dorchester. Now I don't mean to insult anyone's home town, least of all one that houses a Michelin-starred restaurant, but... well, let's just say that if you don't have a particular fondness for pound shops and discount book stores, you may want to just head straight for Sienna and leave the "sightseeing" (I use the phrase loosely) to diehard Thomas Hardy fans desperate to discover which exciting branch of Santander the Mayor of Casterbridge's house has become.
After half an hour waiting for my friend to emerge from a yet another useless-old-tat-shop (she is inexplicably fascinated by them) I found myself playing Angry Birds on the steps of the town hall to pass time and thinking how early would be rude to turn up for our lunch reservation. Thanks to various glowing reports not least the old nod from Michelin, Sienna was the one "sure thing" this weekend; whatever else happens with the hotel and transport arrangements, I told myself, at least Sienna will be worth my while. As it turns out, of course, I needn't have worried about any of the weekend's activities. Aside from regular interminable waits outside charity shops, that is.
Anyway, once every last square inch of the British Heart Foundation on Cornhill had been thoroughly examined, it was finally time to eat. And almost from the off, the similarities with the wonderful Little Barwick House were striking. True, this was a teeny High Street location instead of a grand country pile, and there was no English garden in which to enjoy our (rather lovely) Kir Royales, but this was another husband & wife operation, with the same atmosphere of warm generosity, as if we were perching in owners Russell and Eléna Brown's front room for our lunch. Which I suppose we sort of were.
Amuses got things off to a flying start. There was a little pot of house hummus, chunky and light, with melba toast. There was, for me, a weeny dollop of pork rillette and for my pescatarian charity shop addict an achingly cute mini quiche. And for us both there was a sphere of citrussy goat's cheese coated in a very lovely mushroom powder.
House bread and butter was no slouch either - piping hot, so had most likely just come out of the oven.
The Pescatarian's starter, to help replace all those calories wasted looking at junk, was a brilliant-white fillet of wild bass with a crisp, golden skin balanced on top of a prawn and orange "panzanella". The more absolutely faultlessly-cooked pieces of white fish I eat (and bear in mind this was the second in two days) the more baffled I am why so many restaurants can't seem to manage it. Maybe lots of chefs were plankton in a previous life and are deliberately cooking fish badly to get their own back.
My own starter was an artfully-presented duck liver parfait with chutneys and salad and toasted bread. Much like the "pickled duck" at Paul Ainsworth, this had a lovely light mousse-y texture and a rich, earthy taste of offal. I didn't even mind the inclusion of my nemesis rocket; the pepperiness seemed to work here like a bit of extra seasoning.
Potato gnocchi with wild garlic pesto made up for slight lack of ambition with a lovely balance of textures (toasted pine nuts always make me smile) and a heady note of dark green garlic leaves. Also, however much familiarity would turn some people off (mainly jaded restaurant bloggers admittedly) there's undeniably and objectively not much not to like about wild garlic gnocchi when it's done as well as this. So I'll just shut up and stop wingeing.
Old Winchester is a powerful, aged, Gouda-style cheese from the New Forest. Here it had been incorporated inside agnolotti (I'm not entirely sure the difference between these and ravioli but I'm sure someone can enlighten me) and served with lovely glossy broad beans and a show-stopping truffle-butter sauce. There are a number of photos on the unedited Dorset photo album of me gleefully polishing off every last ounce of the sauce using a combination of spoon (at first) and then fingers. I have no shame when it comes to truffle butter.
Next, just a small matter of the greatest pork belly I've ever eaten in my life. When have you ever had pork belly simultaneously moist and tender inside but also attached to a crackling that's as delicate and thin as potato crisps? Well I never have; if I'm lucky enough to find the flesh is at least edible (and not dense and mealy, bad-gastropub-style) then the crackling is either so thick and dry you run the risk of needing major dental work once dinner is over, or thin but chewy and inpenetrable. This was a masterclass in pork belly, and a delight to eat. And as if that wasn't enough, a wonderfully-rich pork cheek "lasagne" made the most of some other bits of pig, and a neat pile of ribboned courgettes provided colour.
The Pescatarian was hardly shortchanged with her main. A gloriously bronzed fillet of lemon sole, a couple of nicely crusted dived scallops, and a pea-mushroom pasta bound with a light butter sauce. Russell obviously has a thing for pasta; it features in almost every dish and is always of superb quality.
The cheese course was a very interesting goats' called Capra Nouveau, new to me. It was a washed-rind, soft and bouncy, fresh and light in flavour rather than strong like most washed-rinds. I enjoyed it very much, and it went particularly well with the honey jelly that formed part of the accompanying salad.
I've mentioned many times before in blog posts past, the lack of ambition and samey-same choices of the dessert menu in most restaurants are signs that most chefs' attentions are very much occupied with savoury dishes. Not so here - this arrangements of cherries (some cooked, some raw), white chocolate shavings, (top notch) vanilla ice cream and soft baked apricot (I think?) tart was a riot of colour and flavour; I've hardly had a better dessert anywhere.
And this, described as a "bitter chocolate delice" would have been a fine bit of patisserie even without the "salted toffee sauce" which sweeped theatrically (and tastily) around it. That lurking at the back there is crème fraîche ice cream, a very clever way of counterpointing the rich chocolate.
Petits fours were a little truffle thing, a block of homemade fudge and, as if we weren't already convinced of Sienna's way with desserts, an incredible mini lemon tart, a masterpiece in miniaturisation. It almost seemed a shame to eat them. But, you know, we did anyway.
Once lunch service was over, and we were at least on the verge of outstaying our welcome if not actually taking the proverbial (we genuinely never wanted to leave at all), Russell Brown came out to chat. He explained with an understated pride that with 14 covers they were the smallest Michelin-starred restaurant in the country (though may lose that title if places like Sushi Tetsu ever get a gong) and that while Eléna handles front of house on her own (there would hardly be room for anyone else anyway), three chefs usually pack into the tiny kitchen at the back for prepping duties. It is, all things considered, a unique and uniquely exciting place to eat - an operation on the one hand strikingly intimate and relaxed, yet serving recognisably world-class food. There's nowhere else like it, and for so many reasons I am as desperate to return to Sienna as my friend is to have another traipse around the RSPCA shop on Prince's St. And believe me, that's a lot.
We were guests of Sienna restaurant. We travelled to Yeovil Junction with South West Trains. For the best offers go to www.southwesttrains.co.uk. Photos by Hannah.