Dining at The Dorchester, Sunningdale - Restaurant Review
PUBLISHED: 11:16 22 December 2010 | UPDATED: 17:58 20 February 2013
London luxury comes to the country and heralds the welcome return of chef John Campbell. Over lunch in his new restaurant, he explained his vision to Tessa Harris...
London luxury comes to the country and heralds the welcome return of chef John Campbell. Over lunch in his new restaurant, he explained his vision to Tessa Harris.
It was only the third day since its opening, but already the fine dining restaurant was buzzing. Diners from as far afield as Kent and Yorkshire had been some of the first to sample the food at John Campbell at Coworth Park. Ive been away for a while, says the eponymous chef, or director of cuisine and food and beverage to give him his correct title, but his admirers clearly havent deserted him.
John Campbell may have left the two Michelin starred Vineyard at Stockcross a year ago, but he has certainly not been idle. Known as the Cerebral Chef, he is actually a visiting professor of International Gastronomy at Thames Valley University. Hes the man who writes many of the text books for trainees, but there is nothing academic about his attitude to matters culinary. Hes very much a hands on chef and likes to be involved in all aspects of food and service, whether in his own restaurant where there is a choice of three menus, or at the other, less formal eatery in the hotels grounds, The Barn. And for those with a spare 5,000 a night, he will even come and cook for you in the Dower House kitchen. (This is a delightful three-bedroom, 17th century detached house on the estate.)
Its all about what the customer wants, he tells me over lunch. People have very different needs and tastes, but the approach should always be the same. He goes on: A vital ingredient will be creating an acclaimed restaurant loved by hotel guests and local diners alike and building a food and beverage operation that will provide the ultimate in cuisine, whether its afternoon tea for two on the lawn or a wedding for 300 people!
That approach, according to John, involves choosing the best quality, seasonal ingredients, cooking it to perfection and serving it with respect. Whether youre paying a la carte prices - 60 for three courses - or wearing your wellies in The Barn and tucking into a hearty cottage pie with braised root vegetables for 15, he believes the consistency of service and the attention to detail should be the same.
Today we are choosing from the Shire menu, where all food is sourced from within a 70 mile radius, although John is hoping this will decrease over the next few months to include more food from producers from less than 50 miles away.
Of course his local knowledge is key here. He still regularly goes shooting around Bucklebury with Alan Hayward of Vickers Game and youll find local venison on the menu. My first course is Watercress soup served with crayfish ravioli. It is Kennet crayfish, of course.
My blade of beef is tender and served with a rich gravy with roasted vegetables. The meat comes from the Royal Farm, just down the road.
Creamy panacotta comes flavoured with local honey and blackberries picked from the hedgerow that morning and the ever-popular Barkham Blue Cheese, made about 20 miles away, is served with thin slices of radish, chunks of beetroot and onion pure.
Vegetarians will be delighted with a large menu dedicated to them, while the tasting menu consists of eight courses and coffee and chocolates for 80. On it you will find unusual offerings such as pilchards, with tomato, lettuce and tapenade, pigeon with pumpkin and apple, and a chocolate bar with beer and lime. Descriptions are deliberately paired down, letting the food speak for itself. John is going back to basics, concentrating more on secondary cuts and on unusual pairings. His hay chocolate, for example, is made using dried hay from the Coworth estate. It smells like the countryside. Its delicious, he says.
Its an example of the surprising food pairings for which he is known world-wide. He combines unusual flavours to stimulate the different taste receptors of the palate, while always staying true to the natural ingredients, but he winces at the term molecular gastronomy. It isnt a style of cooking. Its what we all need to understand the science of food. Its like having a good vocabulary in order to write well, he tells me.
Indeed, Coworth Park is taking its countryside setting very seriously. It is the first hotel in the UK to grow its own carbon-neutral fuel supply in the form of willow and every time you eat in Johns restaurant, a willow tree is planted. The willow will be used as bio mass fuel for the main boiler within an energy centre that supplies heat and hot water to the hotel. In total 12 acres of the 240 acre estate will be planted with short rotation coppice willow which will be harvested every three years.
The aim is actually to become carbon-positive, not just neutral, says John. That will mean the environment is better off with us here than without.
The same sentiment could equally apply to the gastronomic scene in Berkshire. It will be all the richer for John Campbells return.