Mais oui, merci – a slice of Paris in Bedfordshire is seventh heaven for a nostalgic Nick Hammond…
THERE’S a little restaurant in Bedfordshire – so out of the way, you feel like you’re on a pilgrimage or special mission to find it – that holds a special place in my heart.
Over the years, I’ve visited it in various incarnations – always with friends, always memorable occasions. It’s a special occasion kind of place, you see. The old building that houses the restaurant was originally built in Paris back in 1878. And yet it somehow ends up in a deer park in the grounds and messuages of Woburn Abbey. You drive a quarter of a mile down a pasture lined road just to find it.
Paris House appears serenely from a blanket of greenery – centuries old oaks, fine-limbed beeches. Rare and shy Barasingha Deer nibble the sward and the black and white timbered Tudor building emerges, ringed with dainty iron railings, in splendid isolation.
This is Paris House. So smitten was she by its charms, the beau of the 9thDuke of Bedford fell in love with it. So, he had the place taken down, brick by brick, beam by beam – and rebuilt in his parkland.
Since then, it has been a bijou hospitality outpost; staff accommodation; a hospital; alternatively, a bolthole for King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and General De Gaulle. There’s a bomb shelter built in the garden which was secretly kept in case Churchill needed it while dashing to and from nearby Bletchley Park.
In 1983, Peter Chandler acquired the place and set about creating an extraordinary gastronomic experience. An eccentric former apprentice of Albert and Michel Roux, he was ‘a character’ was Peter; a lover of horse racing and the host of many a sensational table.
On his death, Paris House lay quiet before Chef Phil Fanning and his wife Claire took it over. The kitchens and dining room have been given a long-awaited overhaul. And it stands once again as the pre-eminent restaurant in this rural part of the world.
As I say, I’ve dined here several times over the years and seen it in all its guises. I once enjoyed a memorable Christmas Eve in black tie as snow fell outside; on another occasion, the World Cup was in full swing and we sipped Champagne on the terrace and watched the deer go about their business. I’ve eaten at the fabulous new Chef’s Table, right in the beating heart of the busy kitchen. And each time has been uniquely memorable. Phil Fanning has managed to retain this sense of time and place – and yet create something new and very, very exciting.
For a chef, he’s a remarkably even-tempered sort of chap, is Phil. Now I might be seeing the best side of him, but while focussed and authoritative, he works with his team without seeming to need to resort to chucking things around. And his passion – nay quest – for new, remarkable flavours and combinations – is something to behold.
At my last visit, it was good to see a full house – where once this hallowed place was the bastion of retired Prime Ministers, Barristers and landed gentry, it is now seemingly filled with more down to earth folk; local foodies and those that know a good thing when they taste it.
I could go on to list the meal I enjoyed but frankly, my heart sinks when I resort to doing that in a food review. Paris House is more than just a list of dishes; you can find a list of them on the website, for Heaven’s sake, if that’s what you really want. What I want to convey to you is that this place is all about small portions of exquisite food; about courses that compare and contrast. There are delicate flowers, subtle textures and unusual takes on familiar flavours. You can choose to have the sommelier pair fine wines for you with each course, which is instructive and adds another level of intrigue and invention.
I look around the room at my recent PH pilgrimage and see, on more than one occasion, the same expression on people’s faces – amazement and admiration. I for one, am moved at times to mouth a ‘wow!’ on popping some morsel or other in my mouth.
What I can say is this; you won’t have tasted more cunningly created food anywhere else in the UK. It’s vibrant, it’s different, it’s joyous and it’s innovative.
It’s the result of a happy place, a happy mind, a happy set of circumstances and a lot of hard work. Book it for your next special occasion – you can find a room for the night in nearby Woburn – and revel in the time, the place, the moment.
Paris House is one of life’s great pleasures, in my humble opinion – and just a lovely place to be.
Paris House, Woburn Park, London Road, Woburn MK17 9QP. For more information, including menus and details of private dining and events, visit www.parishouse.co.uk.