Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

Gidleigh Park Hotel

Between 10 & 15 years ago I came across the name Michael Caines whilst he was working full time at the The Gidleigh Park Hotel and heard tales of his incredible culinary talent. Ever since that day I have told myself I would bite the bullet and get myself out there for a meal. I managed to achieve my goal this weekend and it was most definitely worth the wait. I had seen Gidleigh Park Hotel popping up on various food emails and websites, having recently won a number of Sunday Times awards for Best Place to Stay, Best Wine List and most importantly for me Best British Restaurant, pipping Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck to 1st position. This particular Top 100 was drawn up from a survey of over 8,000 food fans, which I think makes it a rather special award.

For the month of November, Gidleigh Park decided to celebrate by offering a discounted lunch menu - £32 for 2 courses or £42.50 for 3 courses. I was sold. Whilst this is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, it was ‘affordable’ enough for me to want to get on the phone and book a table quick smart. After all, how often to you get a chance to eat in a 2 star Michelin restaurant? Not often enough. It is about 25 miles drive from Exeter and takes about 45 minutes, so it’s almost on our doorstep. Whilst snow threatened to throw our well-laid plans completely out the window, I woke on Saturday morning to see the roads clear. I then rang Gidleigh Park to make sure that they weren’t covered in a layer of white – as they are on Dartmoor it would have been impossible to reach them if this was the case. Luck was on my side with a resounding ‘no snow’ update, so we started on the journey at 10.30am with our booking at 11.30 for 12. Now I love Dartmoor, having lived in and around the area for 12 years, and nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by the beauty of the winter moors, so this trip was doubly exciting. After driving through Chagford, I remembered the way from there, having been past the turn off for the hotel hundreds of times before. What I didn’t know is how much time the 1.5 mile drive from the first sign to the hotel actually took. I’m used to tiny, windy, hilly country lanes, but this was incredibly so and I wondered how on earth they managed in winter with ice and snow stopping all but the most intrepid foodies from getting to them. They’re not struggling by any means so I’m assuming it doesn’t hurt them too much.

Just as you think you may have taken a wrong turn, a sign appears on cue telling you not to lose heart, that you only have a ½ mile to go. I’m not sure how many people they surveyed in order to get this spot for the sign precisely right, but I for one was very glad to see it. The beautiful house, built in 1928 for an Australian shipping magnate no less(!) eventually greeted us and I loved that it was grand, but not imposing. One of my big fears about finally visiting Gidleigh Park was that I was going to be disappointed. Not by the food I was sure, but by a feeling of stuffiness, pompousness or pretension that would have ruined it for me. The house itself was the perfect mix of luxury and comfort. I certainly didn’t feel intimidated which is a great start. As we walked towards the back entrance from the car park a very friendly member of staff greeted us in passing and we stepped into the wood panelled entrance hall. On more than one occasion during our trip I thought that the interior of the house was reminiscent of Castle Drogo which is just down the road and of the same period. The wood panelling, stone fireplaces and 1920s/30s style furniture all ooze glamour and understated nobility. Immediately I understood that one of the special things about Gidleigh Park is the staff. Good food is good food in degrees if you get my meaning. It can be artfully presented, beautifully composed, but if the person placing it in front of you, pushes it onto your lap or grunts during the process, it suddenly removes some of the sparkle. In fact I’ve said many times before that for me atmosphere is crucially important and friendly staff are important here. The Holt Inn at Honiton was the last place where I felt a similar sincerity from the staff – that they wanted to be there and look after you and the pay was just a bonus. Really! These guys are that good.

Our coats were taken away and we were shown into the lounge where only one other couple were seated reading the paper. I was green with envy as they looked very much like comfortable house guests sitting by the fire as if they had all the time in the world. Before too long JC was brought his soft drink (he doesn’t drink much) and I ordered a bottle of still water and a glass of the 2008 Chardonnay from the Cape Mentelle vineyard in the Margaret River area, Western Australia. The extensive wine list is a heavy tome that is impressive to flick through – well, wade through. I was driving and my budget did not stretch to many of the bottles although I eyed up a £500 half bottle of red before shaking myself back into the real world. I made a note to visit the Cape Mentelle vineyard in the future as my sister and family have recently moved not far from there just outside of Perth and it was realistic to clock it for my next Australian trip. Hoorah. We were visited by the Head Sommelier himself Edouard Oger, which was lovely given that I only wanted a single glass of white and I had already chosen this from the website before I came. Well ... I was excited. He nodded approvingly when I asked for the wine, but it makes sense to me that if you draw up the wine list yourself you will approve of everything on it.

Next to arrive were canapés served by yet another member of staff – we had direct contact with no less than 8 different helpful people whilst we were there. Unfortunately for JC, one of the tasty little morsels was tartar of tuna and he does not like seafood one little bit. Such a shame, as I had to have his portion too. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to have my first taste of Gidleigh Park cuisine. The tartar of tuna was served with a sliver of beetroot, soused turnip and wasabi cream which I later found out was a miniature version of a starter that Michael Caines uses at his other restaurants and very tasty it was too. The other offering was a small mushroom and soft cheese ball covered in breadcrumbs and served with a light mushroom and garlic creamy sauce. I apologise for the lack of finesse in describing these canapés but I was so eager to move on that I didn’t completely hear what the waitress had said. I also didn’t want to spend too much time with my blogger head on – it was important to enjoy the experience too and not get too technical. Who knows when I will visit again. When I placed my booking, the very pleasant lady on the end of the phone had told me that taking photos would not be ideal as they did not wish to upset other diners and she would leave this to my discretion. As we moved through the afternoon I could see why, as the service and setting is incredibly intimate and personal, without the usual clattering of knives and forks, raised voices and general chaos that you experience in your average restaurant. I did take photos, but they could have been a lot better as you can see. I was very wary of behaving like an insane tourist.

Before too long, and probably in perfect time, we were taken into the dining room which was at that point empty apart from us. I began taking photos like a deranged 18th century peasant who had just discovered the camera. Point and shoot was pretty much my style throughout. Not long after we were seated, fresh, warm bread arrived which included a small baguette that looked fabulously like Salvador Dali’s moustache, as well as slices of tomato and olive bread that I adored the most. Following was a complementary starter of a large crab tortellini with a shellfish bisque. Once again poor JC was left out in the cold, but with bittersweet relish I ate mine first and then moved onto his. This tortellini was gorgeous. The pasta was perfect and the crab filling was substantial and fresh, whilst the shellfish bisque added an extra seafood kick that pushed it to another level. Having polished off two starters, I took the time to look around the dining room. Each of the rooms face out onto a stunning Dartmoor vista, which looked even more magical given the layer of heavy frost and light snow that stubbornly coated the scenery on the day of our visit. The décor in the room was restrained stately home with a stunning flower arrangement in the centre of the room which included black calla lilies of which I’m a big fan. More plus points.

Moving on, both JC and I had plumped for the main course and dessert, leaving the starter out. The complementary starter was therefore a perfect complement to our 2 courses. JC had chosen the risotto of jerusalem artichoke with black olive truffle for his main, whilst I went for the pheasant, pumpkin and cumin pureé with lentils, button onions and a cumin scented red wine sauce. JC was happy enough with his risotto although unfortunately nothing on the menu grabbed him as much as it grabbed me. The risotto was quite salty and just a touch too al dente for me, but still very good, but I was very happy with my pheasant which is served pink - I was asked if this was suitable although I got the feeling anyone requesting a leathery overcooked version might have felt a bit naughty - and married with the lentils and vegetables beautifully. The cumin element gave it a spicy note and as ever was a perfect fit with pumpkin, this combination being a big hit with me already. The sweet button onions were served on top of cubes of soft pumpkin and with the red wine sauce the entire dish came together and tasted as perfect as it looked.

The dessert was, for me, the stand out course although the entire experience was very special. I had unusually been a little unsure of which dessert to order being fairly quick to decide as a rule, but was pointed in the right direction by restaurant manager Damien Bastiat, who had recommended the banana parfait with chocolate and lime sorbet. It was between this and the hot rum and raisin chocolate fondant mousse with white chocolate ice cream. Just typing this dessert title takes me back to that confused state as it sounds fantastic. The banana parfait was an absolute picture although I’m sorry, the photo hurriedly took was atrocious and couldn’t be used here. We were pressed to take a snap, as by this point the dining room had filled to capacity and there was much staff activity. I felt like a naughty school girl just bringing the camera above table level. The banana parfait was layered between thin marbled dark and white chocolate squares and served with a very tart lime mousse atop the stack. A sliced banana with a caramelised top sat alongside it. I loved the idea of a piece of relatively unadulterated banana on the plate. I think this has become my absolute favourite dessert of all time and I’m hoping that it will be a long time before it is surpassed. JC’s glazed lemon tart with lemon confit sorbet and candied zest was a little too zesty for him and I had to agree when I tried it. My lime sorbet was also a cheek-sucker, but balanced nicely with the creamy, banana parfait. If you are not a fan of tart and/or sour citrus flavours then I’m not sure you would appreciate the treatment of limes and lemons at Gidleigh Park, but as I get older I enjoy these flavours more and more. I still can’t bear grapefruit, but that’s another story.

After a stunning meal, and feeling very relaxed, we were asked if we wished to take our coffee and petit fours in the lounge again. Well, of course! We moved into the, by now, relatively crowded lounge (and I mean relatively) and reclined back into our very own sofa. I was unfortunately a bit full by this point so when I saw the beautiful petit fours arrive I was both excited and a little worried. I didn’t want to compromise my enjoyment by having a full stomach after all. The trio of treats consisted of a miniature jam-filled, sugared doughnut hole with vanilla crème anglaise, a passionfruit tart and a 3 chocolate mousse. My favourite was the doughnut hole, closely followed by the passionfruit tart. By this point JC was in his element as dessert is definitely his course. I was struggling after the passionfruit tart so tried the chocolate mousse which was insanely creamy and then passed the rest to JC. It seemed only fair after eating his canapé and his starter. The coffee was also very good. We sat and rested on the sofa for a while and then we thought we must make a move. Unfortunately real life was calling and we needed to get to the shops in Exeter before they closed. With a heavy thud, we crashed back to reality. On our way back to the car I just had to stop and take some photos of the gorgeous grounds. November at Gidleigh Park is bewitching. I am very keen to get back to the hotel so I can see if the other 11 months are just as entrancing, but maybe it’s better to play it cool and keep it a very special occasion. Having such a place a short drive away is yet another serious perk of living in Devon.