In the genre, the hotel is excellent. Rooms are spacious, comfortable and well lit (a pet hate of mine is hotel bedrooms with little more than bedside lamps for illumination), and wi-fi throughout the hotel is faultless (my trip for the rest of that week testifies that even today, that is not a given). But above all, the people of Hambleton Hall are all wonderful. From the moment of arrival, every staff member without exception, has been as helpful as could be with smiles and enthusiasm, and the overall effect is to make you feel valued and special.
I chose to stay here on my trip because the hotel come recommended time and again, and it clearly holds a soft spot in the hearts of many who have stayed there previously; I can understand why. It’s also a culinary destination holding a Michelin star and no less than four AA rosettes, which in the AA definition includes the words ‘passion for excellence’, ‘superb technical skills’ and ‘national recognition’: I'm excited.
In the best traditions of manors, my dinner reservation is 7 for 7:30, and that inevitably means a pre-dinner Martini sitting before the fire, together with a nice selection of canapés (plays on foie gras, salmon and Parmesan, not together I should add). It also provides time to peruse the menu, my first glimpse of what's to come (I never look on line beforehand, save the surprise). We’ve said it before, and we’ll no doubt say it again, manor houses can understandably feel like they have their hands tied on menu construction because they don’t have diners who want daring. Diners tend to be older and conservative. That said, I'm less convinced now than even a year ago that you can't do a little daring and get a way with it.
Here, they have stayed on the conservative side, so the tasting menu, leads with beetroot, followed by scallop and then ballotine of foie gras, exotic fruit salad for a first dessert; well, it just wasn’t doing it for me. The a la carte had plenty of great classic choices and a game evening with a bottle of red seemed a good one, so I quickly decide on pigeon to start and venison for the main.
It turned out that this was a good choice, but then perhaps everything here is a good choice, because the cooking did indeed show a 'passion for excellence' and 'superb technical skills'. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about the look of the pigeon dish when it arrived, sliced for you and arranged in a mini tower, I'm not a big fan of verticals, but I was won over as soon as I took a bite, super tasty and have I ever had pigeon so tender? Salt baked turnips, beer flavoured Macadamia nuts, burnt leek and Madeira source, this was a well rounded dish, full in the mouth and if you like fine cooking, you can only acknowledge how much the kitchen has mastered their craft on this one.
The same is true of the venison, here with salt baked celeriac and red cabbage. Give some texture too with walnuts, puffed rice and a few toasted seeds, and it ticks all the boxes. But that’s the easy part, the magic here is again just how good the venison is, I even find my thoughts drifting to The Ledbury, that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay.
Only on dessert do I hesitate, the Passion Fruit Soufflé sees the acidity of the passion fruit untempered and it’s a small shock to the system. The soufflé itself is well done, and there’s a sorbet and jelly for good measure, but it misses the balance shown elsewhere.
Overall however, it was a fine meal and the kitchen’s strong reputation is clearly deserved, I enjoyed my meal there even more than I thought I would, because the quality of the pigeon and venison was simply beyond reproach. The menu is loaded with classic dishes and they are done incredibly well. The manor house offering is nicely coherent in every aspect and I enjoyed my short time with them. The food was lovely, the manor house itself quintessential, but more than anything else I must say, it was the owners and staff of Hambleton Hall that made my stay special. Now I know why so many people recommended to me that I go there.