Last night we dined at Charlton House which is the small country house hotel owned by Roger Saul is the owner of the Mulberry empire and now an organic farmer who has revived the production of the grain called Spelt – which not surprisingly features throughout the menu. The chef is Elisha Carter who has a good reputation and is the next chef for us to sample who is participating in this year’s Great British Menu.
You choose between a menu gourmand at £68 a head (with selected wines at £108), or three courses from the ALC for £52.50. We chose the menu.
We stared with good glass of Chablis and canapés in the lounge/bar – a good game pâté on a spelt wafer, a crispy olive biscuit, a tricky to identify crispy bread stick, and a small wheel of salmon and cream cheese – very ‘70’s. The lounge is a comfortable area full of over-stuffed sofas and the knick-knacks you associate with country houses.
The wine list is reasonable with a good range of French regions and a section that lists “Roger’s Specials”, we asked the waitress about these but got a worryingly vague answer including the Medoc being a blend of Pinot and Merlot – interesting. We managed to grab the French restaurant manager and he was more forthcoming, explaining each wine and helping us choose a “Nero d’Avola” a Sicilian red.
After drinks and ordering we were moved to our table, the dining room is quite a mish-mash of design concepts, which didn’t really work. It isn’t really contemporary, it’s not really classic, and the best description is homely; lots of ideas collected together rather than designed. OK, it is a country house hotel, but remember the people behind the British design company Mulberry own it, so I would have expected more.
The food. Good bread, in fact very good bread, a good variety of homemade rolls, including onion and multi grain. First up, the amuse bouche, best described as half a quail scotch egg, surrounded by a thick cauliflower soup, served in a small cast iron Karhai. Flavours are deep and intense, a really satisfying dish.
Next, was a sashimi of Pollack, served with an intense, deeply flavoured earthy beetroot puree, a herbed crème fraiche and what we thought was a Pollack brandade. Each element was good, but the ratios are wrong, miniscule pieces of fish overwhelmed by the dressings. It is a small portion almost the same size as many restaurants will serve as an amuse.
This was followed by what seems to be one of Elisha’s signature dishes of duck four ways, which consists of sections of foie gras, rillettes, rare breast and sticky chorizo, all rolled into a large sausage. You get a very thin slice of sausage with separate quadrants with each type of duck. It is served with a horseradish cream, walnut “melba toast” and chutney. Great technique and an impressive looking dish. However, again the main feature of the dish was swamped by the accompaniments. The slice of “duck sausage” needs to be more chunky or you need a few more slices.
We moved on to “Scallops three ways”. A good plump roasted scallop on a smear of puree (parsnip?), a small sashimi wrapped in seaweed (like a sushi roll – but no rice), and a scallop cerviche with a nutty paste. Again all very good, but miniscule. Over halfway through the meal and I am starting to get worried about the Lilliputian portion sizes. For the set menu have they simply halved the protein content on each plate? Is this why the ratios feel wrong? At £68 I am also starting to get nervous about value for money, I wonder if the “Best Fish & Chip Shop in Britain (The People 2005)” which we passed on the way in will still be open on the way home?
The main course is a plate of venison loin, with slice of venison confit sausage; the two are wrapped together with a sticky, intense jus, which has a fantastic depth of flavour. Really tasty, luckily the portion size is a bit better, although still not large.
The cheese board is brought over and it has a good variety of three blues, three goats, three hard, and three soft. With two local and one French in each category. We both chose five and surprisingly the serving size was good. The cheeses are served with three types of homemade biscuits (a spelt wafer, a seed wafer and walnut bread), a quince paste and an apricot and almond paste. All in all it is a very good cheese board with each cheese in very good condition, and the accompaniments well judged (the only small gripe was that the board could have been refreshed before it was presented. It was getting a bit scruffy with only small remnants of some of the cheeses remaining). All too often I find English cheeseboards will have a few cheeses that are past their best but this one was great – they were all in the best condition. At last the hunger pangs were easing…!
For dessert we had a sort of cherry ice cream, in a sort of millefeulle, sandwiched between thyme infused crispy sheets of sugar, and surrounded by colourful but intensely flavoured yellow, light green and dark green dots that we discerned to be lemon butter, spearmint (?) and lime jelly. Not a bad dessert.
Service throughout the meal was quite patchy. The maite’d and our main waiters, both French, were exceptional. Very knowledgeable, confidant and good personalities. But the other staff were not as good, service was OK, but the knowledge about the wine and food wasn’t strong. Other little things let it down: good Riedel glassware, but red wine served in white glasses with intermittent top-ups; all the cutlery set out at the start of the meal, which crowds the table; and, dire piped music, Carol King’s greatest hits and a guitar band (including a ‘70’s solo) on an endless loop, another table asked for it to be turned down, which luckily made it simply intrusive rather than irritating.
Overall verdict. The cooking is very strong, but given the portion size I didn’t really feel it was good value for money (£180 for two including a bottle of red, two glasses of Chablis, but no coffee or water). I assume the sizes of each dish are cut down for the tasting menu and the ALC dishes are more robust. If there had been a few more courses this would have been fine but on quite a small tasting menu it seems penny pinching. Another clue to this is that the menu is “seven courses” however one of these is an amuse bouche – most restaurants don’t count these as one of the courses.
The other element that is odd is the way the food is presented. Each dish is artfully arranged on a variety of modern plates – the Karhai for the amusee, oblongs of slate for one dish, a glass plate edged with gold for another, a classic white plate for another. This is good, but it jars with the country house style of the hotel. Contemporary modern food, artistically presented in your grandmother’s sitting room. Odd.
I guess Elisha is constrained by the restaurant/hotel he is cooking in. He seems to be out of context. I look forward to eating his food again, but maybe when he has moved to a venue more in keeping with his style and panache.