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John Campbell at Coworth Park, May 2011.

Posted on: May 5th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Coworth Park, the restored 18th century mansion set in 240 acres of Berkshire parkland, is a triumph of sophistication, luxury and good taste. This applies both to the interior design by Martin Hulbert of Fox Linton Associates and – literally – to the cuisine of multi-Michelin starred chef, John Campbell.

As befitting part of the Dorchester Group, no expense has been spared in creating a contemporary style with a sense of historic grandeur. The high ceilinged, well lit reception area, drawing room and bar are attractively adorned with elegant chandeliers, original artwork, sculpture and modern glass. Stylish leather seating, plus carpeting and silky fabrics add to the sumptuous feel of the rooms. The design of the dining room itself draws inspiration from the natural surroundings with its stunning canopy of oak leaves and acorns in beaten copper. Hanging from the ceiling and reflected in the mottled pattern of the carpet, this magnificent adornment to the room creates a unique and dramatic effect; that it appears to “crown” the exquisite food and drink being served below is a highly appropriate imag

Having made his name at Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, where he gained his first Michelin star, and the Vineyard, Stockcross where he gained his second, John Campbell seeks to emulate these achievements in his role as Consultant on the grander stage of Coworth Park. To say he is a passionate chef fails to do justice to his total commitment to the profession. Whilst love and emotion are apparent in his infectious enthusiasm at interview, the foundations of his success are rooted in an extensive knowledge and clear understanding of ingredients and cooking techniques. Whether in describing the best way of preparing stock or explaining flavour combinations to stimulate different taste receptors of the palate, his intelligent application of scientific principles is clearly evident. That he is willing to share his expertise is an even greater testament to his dedication and generosity. As co author of the leading manuals used in cookery schools, and as visiting professor of International Gastronomy at Thames Valley University, his legacy will thrive in future generations of chefs. This sharing of ideas and experience is no truer than in the kitchens of Coworth Park where new dishes are the collaborative effort of a least five people, including Head Chef Olly Rouse.

To use top quality, seasonal and local ingredients has become almost a cliché amongst top chefs, no matter how true; but to create unusual yet harmonious combinations, giving a range of taste sensations, is far more demanding. This is where John Campbell’s cooking excels. Balance of flavour, taste and texture are essential. Although plates never appear cluttered, and the main ingredient is allowed to shine, dishes in all three courses are multi component, each element retaining its individuality. Foams and purees are used not as decorative touches but as integral parts of the whole; how pleasing to note also that foams here actually taste of the advertised ingredient. Menu descriptions are understated, even terse, allowing for an element of surprise and even amusement when dishes are brought to the table. All these characteristics were displayed to their full advantage when Fine Dining Guide visited for a week day lunch.

Guests can choose from the daily three course Shire Menu, made from ingredients sourced within a 70 mile radius; the eight course tasting menu, with a vegetarian alternative; or the carte. Any of these choices will begin with crisp bread with humous and anchovy dips and Parmesan crisps. Four types of well made bread – wholemeal, rye, crispy baguette and poppy seed – are also offered. An amuse bouche of cold pea espuma with meat juice and bacon was vibrant in both taste and colour.

A starter from the carte was humbly labelled as “Duck, cherry, water chestnut.” In fact, this composite dish featured cured smoked breast from a duck ham, a parfait of its liver, crispy deep fried tongue, a base of marinated sliced duck leg, water chestnut, turnip, pine nuts and cherry! This was a tour de force not only of creativity in balancing the flavours and textures, but also of consistency, each element being afforded equal attention so their inherent tastes shone through. The accompanying rich and powerful red wine stood up well to the game. (Wine: Marsannay, Pinot Noir, 2007, Burgundy)

Equally accomplished but much lighter was “Crab, grapefruit, avocado and cucumber.” Here, the beautifully fresh crab meat was wrapped in an ultra thin sheet of mouli and given acidity by the grapefruit. Again, surprise came in the form of salmon mi-cuit which also went well with cucumber and avocado. Skilled wine pairing was again displayed in the choice of white wine with its citrus and spicy notes. (Wine: Alliam, Gruner Veltliner 2009, Austria)

A third starter of “Red mullet, brandade, tomato, olive” was simple in conception and brilliantly executed. The rich smokiness of the seared fillet perched on soft saffron polenta contrasted with the taste sensation of baby tomatoes which had been marinated in olive oil and balsamic and burst with sweet and sour tastes. Olives also appeared in the form of a light crumble which added texture and a form of seasoning. The well rounded chardonnay, rich and buttery, drank well with this dish. (Wine: Domaine de L’Hortus, Chardonnay, 2009, Languedoc)

An intermediate course of “Scallop, ceviche, pak choi, tomato” from the tasting menu made no mention of the nuts and morels that added earthy notes to more delicate flavours. This was one of the most labour intensive of the dishes, involving a gentle sear of the shellfish, marinating in citrus for six hours, and the extraction of tomato water through muslin to create a sublime essence which, when poured at the table, lifted the whole dish. The chosen wine, intensely concentrated with salty minerality and lasting finish was another inspired choice by the sommelier. (Wine: Pioneer Block 18, Sauvignon Blanc 2010, New Zealand)

A main course of “Sole, chicken, asparagus and grapes” can be seen as a playful version of Sole Veronique, but made with Lemon rather than Dover sole, and with a much lighter butter sauce. The addition of a hazelnut praline crust, chicken wing and asparagus completed the combination of soft and crisp, savoury and sweet, strong and mild elements. The accompanying white Burgundy had bright, citric qualities that worked well with the fish. (Wine: Meursault, Les Luchets, 2007, Burgundy)

“Royal farm beef, polenta, beetroot, bone marrow” was, perhaps, the least complicated of main courses, but no less accomplished for that. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, its mature flavour was complemented by the softness of the polenta, sweetness of the beetroot and the richness of the bone marrow beignet. How fitting that cured meat and tobacco notes of the rich, dark berry Syrah should be offered with this dish (Wine: Cote Rotie, Baurgard, Syrah, 2006, Rhone Valley.)

“Halibut, oyster, chorizo, seaweed” saw the firmly textured fish precisely cooked, giving a golden crust and retaining its inherent moistness. An oyster, wrapped in brik pastry, squash and potato spaghetti, showed real skill and attention to detail in producing sophisticated garnishes. Fennel puree and chorizo gave gentle and aniseed and spicy notes which did not overwhelm the fish. The good balance of slightly sweet fruit flavours and brisk acidity of the white wine complemented this dish wonderfully. (Wine: Ca’tullio, Pinot Grigio 2010, Italy)

Lime sorbet with green tea foam captured the fragrance of the fruit and the bitterness of the tea, proving a refreshing palate cleanser.

There were surprises in the dessert section. “Muscavado, marcapone, prune, passion” was a fun if loose interpretation of a deconstructed Tiramasu. The deep, sweet richness of the Muscavado replicated the coffee liqueur. However the dessert went much further with its use of prune and raisins soaked passion fruit to create a delectable, stylish dessert.

Lime and vanilla pannacotta was an unusual combination which worked well and showed the correct degree of wobble. Gariguette strawberry sorbet and jelly had an intensity not usually associated with this fruit. Finally, tarragon foam gave a gentle herby aniseed note which worked better than the ubiquitous mint leaf found elsewhere.

“Hay Chocolate, rose, blood orange” was even more experimental. Chocolate infused with dried hay and reminiscent of those rural smells, was rendered into a ganache. It came with rose marshmallow, crystallised rose, blood orange puree and lychee sorbet. The sparing use of the potentially overpowering rosewater was an inspired element in this brilliant evocation of the English countryside.

The description of “Mango, coconut, black olive” failed to do justice to the intensely flavoured mango parfait and rich coconut rice pudding served. Black olive caramel, with its salty sweet notes, worked well with the other elements, which included mango puree and white chocolate ice cream

Good coffee, excellent petit fours and chocolates completed a memorable meal in what must be one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the country. Service under the direction of the charming and gracious Thomas Mercier, was impeccable.

Staff were friendly, engaging, unobtrusive and knowledgeable about the dishes – not an easy task given the range of components and cooking techniques. As mentioned above the flight of wines to accompanying the savoury courses hit the mark perfectly, enhancing the whole experience.

Olly Rouse and his brigade of 12 in the kitchen, together with the front of house team, have produced a restaurant of which they can be truly proud. The consultancy role of John Campbell will, no doubt, help take Coworth Park to greater heights, gaining the recognition from Michelin and other the major guides it deserves.

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