We first visited Esseborne Manor a couple of years ago, at about the same time of year as it happens, when the gardens were similarly awash with the bright hues of spring flowers. Perched on a small hill in the lushness of the North Wessex Downs, close to the Bourne Valley and in an area of outstanding natural beauty, it’s not surprising that, more than 100 years ago, Victorian builders chose this beauty spot as the site for the country retreat of a wealthy family.
Thankfully, today we can all revel in the bucolic beauty as it has been a hotel for more than 30 years now, some 19 in the hands of Ian Hamilton, who runs it with his daughter, son and daughter-in-law, so that it still retains the homely intimacy of its origins.
As soon as dinner guests walk through the door, for instance, they are shown to the small, cosy bar where, drink soon in hand, they can wind down in front of the blazing log fire and peruse the menu. It was the food in particular that had made our last visit so memorable so, when we were offered the chance of a return visit, our mouths watered at the thought. But would it be as good as we had remembered it?
Last time we indulged in the seven-course tasting menu and found it incredible value at an introductory price of £40 and enjoyed it with paroxysms of pleasure. So we were relieved to hear that the man responsible, Dutch head chef Dennis Janssen, who had devised the dishes, was still on the scene, albeit now in more of an executive capacity, with the day-to-day cooking having been taken over by his Polish protegé Marak Ciesielczuk.
Dennis had said that he enjoyed “playing with different temperatures and textures on one plate” and serving dishes that were “witty, a bit of fun”. The tasting menu is still there, and still incredible value at just £55 for seven courses, with the same addition of £15 for a flight of complementary wines, but this time we wanted to see how we would fare (if you’ll excuse the pun) à la carte.
Though not before we had partaken of a trio of appetisers in front of the fire. These delicious morsels of salmon mousse, mushroom purée on a cheese crisp and caramelised red onion purée on a crisp of chicken skin (truly, it tastes much better than it sounds) were certainly witty little warm-ups for the main act, for which we were led to Esseborne’s elegant dining room, whose ambience is created by log fires, low lighting and fabric-lined walls.
To start, I chose a crab bisque with a rouille foam, while my husband opted for the salmon gravadlax which came with fennel and beetroot. These were accompanied by a basket of warm, home-made breads and rolls which, as the butter melted straight into them, could have made a feast all by themselves, with everything there from olive-encrusted focaccia to caraway seed, cheese and oatmeal rolls.
The robust flavour of the bisque was creamily tempered by the rouille foam, while the gravadlax was generous in size and tender under fork. For mains, I had a fillet of pork with thick-sliced bacon, accompanied by apple, grilled shallots, creamed cabbage and fat chips served on the side. The pork was melting, with the bacon providing that extra savoury oomph, and both were set off by the sweetness of the apple and the grilled shallot. Delicious though I found the dish – and iit is something I would definitely order again – I couldn’t compete, eulogistically-speaking, with my husband, who was so taken with his fillet of cod with chorizo, pak choi and roasted artichoke that I heard him wax lyrical like never before. You might not expect such delight over what was, after all, just a piece of fish but this one was, he said, “absolutely gorgeous”.
Because not only was its dark skin fried crisp, just as he likes it, but, at the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, “the combination of the delicate flakes of the fish and the strong flavour of the chorizo getting to know each other and becoming friends, leaving an array of tastes dancing in your mouth” particularly drew his pleasure. “I’ve never had this combination before,” he said, “and couldn’t have imagined that they would go so well together.”
We finished with a coffee parfait and walnut cake chocolate pudding between us (although rhubarb panna cotta with sorrel and gingerbread had been a strong contender) and, as usual, the presentation of the food was super elegant, the coffee parfait creamily perfect, the cake nicely nutty and the whole accompanied by a rich and satisfying swirl of dark chocolate ganache. As we relaxed with coffee and our petits four – hibiscus marshmallow, passion fruit jelly and chocolate truffle – we mulled over the fact that Marak had certainly done Dennis proud and certainly delivered on our expectations. Last time we were here we promised ourselves that we would return for another meal. Guess what? We still are.