Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Wynyard Hall, Teesside

Strolling through the vast walled gardens attached to Wynyard Hall, with its acres and acres of bedding groaning with all kinds of very healthy looking fruit and veg stretching almost as far as the eye could see, I naturally assumed that a large proportion of the produce would be offered in the garden shop or sold to a number of local restaurants. There seemed to be enough growing to singlehandedly feed most of Darlington - I mean just look at the scale of the place from space - and even though the hotel itself is hardly a small operation - everything about Wynyard is exaggeratedly grand and imposing - it seemed unlikely they'd need quite this amount of onions, kale, carrots etc. just for themselves.

So that night, settling down for dinner in a dining room so vast the ceiling seemed to be above the cloud layer, I brought up the subject with one of the very affable front of house. What happens to all the fruit and veg the restaurant doesn't use?

"Oh, we use pretty much all of it," came the reply, "there's very few bits left over for the shop."

Which, when you think about it, is quite extraordinary in what it implies for any other restaurant with the ambition of growing all of their grocery needs on-site. Wynyard Hall's dining area isn't tiny, but it's not exactly stuffed full of covers - the tables are nicely spaced out and there's plenty of room to move about - but even this medium-sized operation requires a kitchen garden the size of a football pitch to keep it stocked. It's great for them, obviously, that they have the space and the gardening expertise to do it, but I certainly came away with a newfound appreciation for anywhere attempting such an ambitious control of their ingredient offering.

And speaking of which, as you might hope, the ingredients at Wynyard Hall are absolutely blinding. The first bite to eat is this, a little potato that had been in the ground mere hours before, soaked in butter and topped with what I think was a lovage purée. I can honestly say I've hardly eaten a better potato in my life, it was that good, and so from the very first morsel served that evening, it became very clear that all the trouble and effort of the kitchen garden had been absolutely worth it.

In fact the next dish was not just supplied by the garden, it was actively inspired by it. The "Walled Garden Salad" contained a bewildering number of flowers, vegetables and herbs, each treated according to maximising their potential (fennel bulb was braised, I think, while a mini courgette was lightly grilled) and artfully presented. What's the point in having a vast walled garden if you can't show off the results of it, and though it's probably fair to say the kitchen's intervention here was deliberately minimal, the odd blob of clever sorrel mayonnaise and some kind of (quince?) jam added a few reminders that they can be serious and cheffy when they need to be.

Smoked eel had a meaty texture and strong, salty flavour, and came in a lovely subtle fresh pea and milk "soup" which complimented it very well. There's not much else to say about this really - it wasn't uninteresting, but just uncomplicated, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Next came a scallop, with another tasty little morsel from the garden (a tiny young shoot of baby gem lettuce) topped with bacon. Bacon and scallop is of course a time-honoured match, but this bit of seafood had been topped with a fiercely sharp citrus glaze, which took a bit of getting used to. Once all the flavours settled down in the mouth, though, it worked rather well. And what a good strong dark crust on the scallop, too, which I always like to see.

The last of the savouries was a lamb chop, meltingly tender and blushed pink, with a number of elements lamb should always come with, namely a mashed potato consisting of mainly butter, some glossy vegetables and herbs, and most importantly of all a thick, dark, glossy sauce to bind it all together. Needless to say, this dish ticked every single one of my personal pleasure points and I completely demolished it - it's essentially all of the reasons I go to restaurants, on one plate. There was even a bonus piece of sweetbread in there, and although I wasn't completely in love with the "molasses butter" it was cooked with, I still ate it quite happily because hey, sweetbread.

"Toffee Apple Parfait" was a delicate little thing, sweet and summery and laced with just enough salt on the pastry to make the tastebuds tingle. In a grand old hotel such as this, afternoon tea is obviously a major part of the experience - most tables on the terrace overlooking the lake were occupied by families tucking into cakes and scones on the Saturday we arrived, and there are fully two (huge, naturally) other rooms inside serving the same - so it's probably no surprise the pastry section know what they're doing.

Finally, a strawberry tart - colourful, seasonal, flatteringly accessible and yet, with its blob of slickly-Pacojetted marscapone ice cream and swoops of gorgeous strawberry jus, clearly the work of a kitchen that has produced many such elegant offerings before. Have you got the picture by now? Wynyard Hall is good.

True, I was hardly likely to travel all the way up to Darlington without being pretty sure I was going to enjoy both dinner and a good night's sleep (the beds are super comfy, by the way, and they give you a little vial of "sleep aid" room spray which I can confirm really works - I slept like a log) but even so, none of this is inevitable. Hotel restaurants, ambitious hotel restaurants like this at least, have a very difficult job to do in keeping your average honeymooner or wedding guest happy whilst also serving the kind of food that gets you noticed on sites like these, and they could have very easily, under a lesser kitchen, fallen awkwardly between two competing philosophies and satisfied nobody.

Instead, Wynyard Hall is that rarest of things - a palatial country hotel set in hundreds of acres of stunning surroundings that doesn't just let the décor do the talking. For your money (and it's not even super expensive, £55 for the tasting menu) you do, admittedly, get quite a bit of jaw-dropping scenery but you also get the kind of ambitious, ingredient-led Modern British food, supported by top suppliers and a record-breaking kitchen garden, that any corner of the country would be exceedingly proud to call their own. And for aiming so high and getting so much of it so right, Wynyard Hall should be very proud indeed.


I was invited to Wynyard Hall and they wouldn't let me pay for so much as a glass of brandy (though I did offer) so many thanks to them for everything. Lovely people, lovely place.

No comments: