Saturday, December 24, 2011

T'was the night before Christmas

So dressed in my finery I join the other festive diners with an air of expectation, as for the hotel guests, we are embarking on our initial culinary adventure with the first of Robert Thompson’s three tasting menus. The non-residents, I suspect, have chosen their favourite of the menu trio also. I've selected the most elaborate for tonight's dinner, the slightly less extravagant for Christmas lunch and more modest for Boxing Day lunch. My rationale is that I've had time to summon a little hunger in preparation for the feast tonight, and I’ll have less time to work up an appetite tomorrow and the day after. At the corner table I see L and B from Christmas here last year. They are joined also by L’s sister C (or is it K?) We were the only people availing ourselves of the Hambrough’s chic boutique rooms last year but this year the hotel is full and I wonder which tables seat the other guests.   
I start with the delicious gooey cheese filled gougères, this time on a square of slate, and a glass of cassis laced Champagne to get the tastebuds tingling.   
Todays appetiser is a little white onion velouté topped with winter-warming chermoula foam.
Next is the Mackerel with Island Potato and Osietra Caviar. The elegant cubes of fish, slivers of potato salad, nuggets of haricot vert are arranged in a tower of discs. I wouldn't generally choose a dish like mackerel but it had a delicate, clean taste with fresh iron-y zing of the pearls of caviar. 
One of my most favourite aromas starts to assail my senses as a soup dish of Velouté of Jerusalem Artichoke with Parmesan, Black Winter Truffle and Wild Mushroom Brioche is delivered. The soup is delicious, woodsy, creamy with tantalizing shards of Parmesan melting into its depth with a scattering of the finest chopped chive rings.  But the star of the show is the slices of black truffle, the heady perfume extends to the baked-in-a-flowerpot warm brioche and the salt crystaled butter. Just layer upon layer of truffle-y goodness, this is nirvana, I've died and gone to epicurean heaven. Every morsel of this elixir is polished off, this is superb cooking. 
The Pressing of Foie Gras and Wild Duck, Caramelised Clementine Puree, Pain d’epice and Watercress Salad is a smooth marbled slab of delicate meaty morsels bordered by two walls of the thinnest, crispiest spicy ginger bread.  Each forkful can be dunked in the tangy streaks of vibrant clementine. 
One fresh pasta cushion filled with light chunks of langoustine surrounded by autumnal spheres of pumpkin partially submerged under nutty foam or otherwise Raviole of Langoustine, Pumpkin with Sautéed Swiss Chard and Almond Cappuccino.

I'm starting to fade a little so have asked for a rest after my fish course. What I have awaiting me is a beautiful hunk of burnished golden Cornish Turbot on the Bone. Stew of Cannelloni Beans, Clams, Cockles and Horseradish. I always think that open clams add a quintessential flash of seashore sunshine to a meal and this is how this dish makes me feel.  It’s too dark to see the sea outside but I can enjoy the seaside on my plate. The turbot yields to white soft flakes at the merest fork, there are, annoyingly, more bones than I'd like to spoil my eating pleasure (and I don't mean the bone it’s cooked on!) but fish can be infuriating like that. I've never been a huge fan of cannelloni beans, and I'm still not convinced but I gave them a try. I do like a subtle kick of horseradish however, this horseradish was very subtle, really too subtle, I only believed it was in the dish because the menu told me so. 
The beef is coming next and I'm having a breather with a fine Malbec checking out the other diners with that contented, well-fed buzz around the room.
After the longest pause I can muster the main event arrives. Island Beef with Potato Gnocci, Crispy Braised
Oxtail, Salsify and Trompette de le Mort, Oxtail Jus and Parsley Oil. I was fairly sure I would struggle to eat another morsel but here we have draped rosy slices of the rare fillet on top of a flat cake of crunchy oxtail-y loveliness. Then there is the beautifully bronzed salsify, dark dense mushrooms and creamy cauliflower puree. The potato gnocchi were so superior to the lumpen ones last night, still firm but not stodgy. 
And for the final flourish the entire dish is decorated with Jackson Pollock splashes of verdant parsley oil.
Even though I've said how full I am, my waitress asks me if I'd like to partake in the optional cheese course, which is pretty funny. I'd like to at one meal but perhaps with one of the smaller menus. 

The pre-dessert of Sloe Gin Jelly with Pink Champagne Foam is a welcome, light, refreshing and restoring, I'm nearly at the home straight now. 
The signature dessert of the three tasting menus is in front of me - the Dark Chocolate and Hazelnut Layered Parfait with Hazelnut Tuille. The stylish layers of rich chocolate and hazelnut with airy crispy shards of tuille and extravagant wisps of edible gold. Think Michelin starred Nutella! It's picture perfect and I'm admiring its stature whilst chatting to my neighbours on the next table. S and her husband A used to live in the Isle of Wight and can impart oodles of local knowledge which I hope I can profit from. And we also share a love of the Orient Express extravaganzas.  We swap experiences of my trip to Venice and across the US and S and A’s fabulous holiday exploring castles in Scotland on the newly restored Royal Scotsman. We are so absorbed in our tales my dessert keels over with my neglect. The few mouthfuls I have however are very good indeed.  It’s actually after midnight when we finish our drinks and retire to our rooms - so “Merry Christmas”, tomorrow is another day of culinary indulgence - oh my!

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