August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Checking my AA road atlas before heading off to a long-planned reunion lunch, Mallory Court looked dangerously close to the industrial outskirts of Leamington Spa and Junction 13 on the M40.
I needn’t have worried as this is the view from the hotel terrace:
The M40 is there in the background but practically invisible. Mallory Court could be the setting for one of those beer ads “if Carlsberg did Motorway service stations” – long camera pan up the drive to the honey-coloured ivy-clad stone walls of the manor house; cut to guests sitting in cosy oak panelled dining room; lingering shots of guests sipping coffee on the terrace overlooking immaculate formal gardens…
So what was the occasion? Having exchanged nothing more than Christmas cards with Mike and Lynnette for years, it was Mike’s very good idea to meet up for lunch in the centre of England as we live at opposite ends of the country. We all met on a week long residential tennis course at Windmill Hill in Sussex in the early 1990s. Those who know me will confirm that my tennis didn’t really improve but we had the best of weeks – looking back I recall it as a week of sunshine, Glyndebourne, drinks and fun. Oddly (or perhaps not) I seem to have forgotten how to hit a double-handed backhand or how to apply topspin to my lob.
It was therefore very fitting for the three of us enjoy a hedonistic lunch after all these years. We had a lot of catching up to do so my attention was on conversation and company rather than the finer points of the food, which is after all how it should be.
Despite its name and initial impressions, Mallory Court is not an ancient manor but an Arts and Crafts trophy-house built in 1914 for a retired Manchester cotton baron. The house changed hands a number of times before being converted to a country house hotel in 1976. It’s now owned by Midlands entrepreneur (sounds posher than Brummy businessman doesn’t it?) Sir Peter Rigby who dabbles in hotels and airports as well as his main IT services business SCC Group.
The immediate impression on entering the hotel is one of welcoming efficiency. There are cosy armchairs to sit in and staff appear just when you feel like ordering a drink without the feeling of being hovered over. I always use the ladies’ loo as a bellwether of attention to detail in an establishment. Mallory Court did not disappoint:
After champagne and nibbles we were shown to our table in the dining room. White damask-clad tables are spaced discreetly apart to allow diners to talk business in privacy and there’s a comfortable, club-like atmosphere.
This is a Michelin-starred establishment so we began with the obligatory amuse-bouche. This comprised a tiny precise cylinder of smoked eel mousse together with vibrant magenta beetroot served three ways, the flavours pointed up with a scattering of micro-cress and flavour explosions from tiny shards of deep-fried caper.
I suppose the purpose of an amuse-bouche is for the chef to summarise his approach to food in one tiny little plateful. This is what chef Simon Haigh did here – what it told me is that this was a chef who likes classic combinations brought up to date, applies precision and attention to detail and has an eye for colour and texture. It came as no surprise to learn afterwards that Haigh learned his craft under Raymond Blanc at the Manoir au Quatre Saisons. In fact he seems intent on creating a Manoir-like atmosphere here in Warwickshire using produce (including that beetroot) fresh from his own kitchen garden.
I chose a rather weird sounding first course of egg purée, crispy ham hock and pineapple chutney, trusting the chef to turn it into something edible. This is what arrived:
The crispy ham-hock turned out to be a spring-roll type affair, and the egg purée a super smooth scrambled egg or perhaps a hot savoury custard. Very clever and no idea how you’d go about recreating it at home.
Main courses were a little more classic and little less off-the wall. Mike chose pork loin served with the most adorable Mirabelle plums looking like miniature apples:
Lynnette and I both chose sea bream with black squid ink risotto, squid rings and Mediterranean vegetables. This should have been served with fillets of red mullet, one of my favourite fish, but (disappointingly but reassuringly I suppose) they’d sold out by the time we ordered hence the substitution of sea bream.
Another picture on a plate, but with every element contributing to the harmonious balance of flavours. A square plate this time, as weirdly shaped crockery seems to be de rigueur these days for any restaurant with Michelin aspirations.
I’m not normally a pudding person, but this wasn’t an everyday occasion so I chose crème brûlée with honeycomb mousse and strawberry sorbet.
This was a perfect size for a post-lunch pudding and each element was technically perfect.
I’m sorry to say we were a little greedy at this stage and, purely out of intellectual curiosity of course, ordered another pudding to share – peanut ice cream with caramelised bananas and bitter chocolate tart. Peanut or peanut butter ice cream is popping up in smart restaurants everywhere these days and this one did not disappoint, nor did the intensely flavoured bitter chocolate tart:
We concluded our lunch with coffee and petit fours on the terrace outside.
In fact the coffee here is both cheaper and a darn sight better than a slop-bucket of Starbucks from WelcomeBreak Warwick North. So next time you’re speeding along the M40 I recommend you take the slightest of detours from junction 13 to refresh the soul as well as the body.
Mallory Court Hotel
Royal Leamington Spa