Restaurant review: Prue Leith dinner at Cotswold House Hotel
In my book, any venue where Zara Phillips is spotted has been given the royal seal of approval.
Spend an evening at Cotswold House Hotel in Chipping Campden and it's not hard to see why. The Regency building has struck the perfect balance of grandeur and warmth and it smacks of personality the moment you walk in.
Forget the red carpet. A grass rug – real grass I might add – is laid out at the entrance at the moment with an imitation sheep perched at one side.
As I enter, the unmistakable crackle of a wood-burning fire can be heard in the nearby lounge area and I'm handed a large glass of Brockman's gin, packed with ice, orange rind and a sprinkling of blueberries. I've never been a fan of the tipple they dub 'mother's ruin' but this, I'm pleased to say, is rather different.
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Crisp and refreshing it proves the perfect aperitif ahead of the smorgasbord of culinary delights that await.
The £75-a-head set menu came courtesy of Michelin-starred chef Simon Hulstone. His culinary creations were part of the inaugural BITE food festival, a week-long celebration of fine food and wine. The opening night saw MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace in attendance and our guest of honour was none other than the grand Dame of British cooking, Prue Leith.
Recognisable as one of the judges on long-running programme Great British Menu, Prue, a stalwart of the Cotswold culinary community, proves a striking presence in a smart orange jacket with black trim.
As we enter the dining room for the evening it's hard not to draw comparisons with a wedding venue, with white fabric draped further than the eye can see. Each table is adorned with a huge vase that is filled, to much amusement, with a vast array of fruit and vegetables and the theme continues with place names pierced into a selection of vegetables too.
Mine for the record, is a particularly ugly-looking potato.
After a brief introduction and nod to the wines to accompany each dish, our five-course bonanza is under way.
Three artfully-designed pickled golden and Boltardy beetroot samosas present themselves, filled with Vulscombe goats' cheese and batons of raw apple.
It's a lesson in how to treat the humble beet, with the natural acidity of the earthy vegetable cutting through the rich and creamy goats' cheese beautifully.
Three roasted bay scallops on a bed of savoy cabbage and lemon risotto follow, with an Elberry Cove mussel cream resting on the dish like the waves of the sea crashing against the shore.
Again, there are nods of satisfaction among the discerning diners and the wine to accompany the dish – a glass of 2012 Awatere River Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – proves equally moreish.
Our second fish dish of the day – perhaps to be expected given that Simon runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in Torquay – is a beautifully presented fillet of halibut with parsnip puree, spring onion butter, verjus and fennel pollen.
Fortunately the aniseed flavour of the fennel is merely a background hint and although the dish could prove too sweet for many, I find it a delight.
The main attraction now arrives, in all its gutsy meaty splendour.
Breast of Crediton duck, beautifully pink and tender, sits artfully alongside caramelised turnip, pomme fondant, braised duck pastille and a rich hearty jus. The pastille is a parcel of pure gastronomic joy, with confit duck meat nestled inside strips of crisp potato.
It's a pity then to find that the creative menu cooked with the finest of ingredients should contain a sting in the tail with a dessert which lacks the panache of previous courses.
A slice of vanilla and rhubarb cheesecake with a coconut and lime leaf sorbet is a nice dish, don't get me wrong. But nice in the sense that Cadbury's chocolate is nice; but you wouldn't buy someone a bar for Christmas.
Thankfully the lack of a sparkling finale does not undermine an evening which Prue sums up to perfection during her after-dinner address.
"A menu worthy of any competition," she tells Roux scholar Simon, to much applause.
Then it was time for Prue to steal the show, her warm and engaging personality shining through with tales from her stellar career.
From starting out when she had a flat in London with a bath she used to keep lobsters and lettuces in, to the panic of serving Princess Margaret who wandered into her restaurant at 10pm on a Monday night, it proves a truly fascinating insight.
And there's even a nod to the late food critic and film director Michael Winner, who she described as a "wicked soul" who on one visit to her restaurant was disappointed to learn of the lack of celebrities on the guest list.
"You are the glitterati," she told him.
Like the title of her autobiography – of which every diner received a signed copy – there was much to Relish.