Not only does Lucknam Park, a five star manor house hotel located in Wiltshire, just a short drive from the city of Bath, boast an equestrian centre, a spa with brasserie, and a cookery school, but a destination one Michelin star restaurant. Recently updated and renamed ‘Restaurant Hywel Jones’ in honour of the chef who has retained the accolade since 2006, just two years after he was appointed executive chef, his reputation for classic cuisine with a modern flair continues to impress as much as the remarkable setting. Having worked in many notable Michelin-starred London restaurants at the beginning of his career, such as Chez Nico at 90 and Marco Pierre White, Jones’s reputation was firmly cemented at Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where, working as head chef, he achieved his first star, yet it’s not hard to see why the beautiful 500 acre estate of Lucknam Park succeeded in luring Jones away from the bright lights of the food capital.
The sweeping mile-long drive lined with towering beeches, makes for a thrilling entrance whether you are staying overnight or not. After you hand in your keys for the car to be valet parked (a classic number would look the part here), you’ll be shown to the cosy yet impressive drawing room or library for an aperitif and a chance to read the dinner menus. There are three to choose from; a la carte (£87 for three courses), an eight course tasting menu, or the eight course signature menu (both £110). The wine list is meanwhile surprisingly reasonable, with many bottles available for around the £40 mark including the Tin Pot Hut Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
As one of only five Michelin-starred venues in the county, Restaurant Hywel Jones is very much a special occasion venue, as evident from the couple on a neighbouring table who stood out in full evening attire, and due to the Interflora box brimming with carnations which remained on the table throughout. A couple who, (I couldn’t help but overhear) enjoyed discussing with the waiter and somelier other Michelin-starred restaurants they had experienced, they were clearly determined to mark whatever occasion it was with as much pomp and circumstance as possible, even if they might have offended the dedicated kitchen brigade by dismissing their expertly composed starters by demanding smoked salmon and caviar to accompany their first bottle of rose champagne. Of course they had their desires granted by the accommodating team, yet I couldn’t help but think they were missing out and missing the point.
Having dined at Lucknam Park during a luxurious hotel stay five years ago I admittedly struggled to notice the great changes I had expected as a result of the recent re-branding and redecoration of the restaurant, but perhaps I was relieved. I initially thought that the sky-painted ceiling had been done away with, but no, it was just about to be repainted, while the damask wallpaper, opulent drapes adorning the floor to ceiling windows, and linen decked tables continue to lend the space a reassuringly traditional elegance hard to find these days.
The formal décor does make for a formal atmosphere, however, and guests barely talk above a whisper on first being seated, despite the front of house being attentive and friendly when engaged. In fact, I was grateful for the couple celebrating to our left for lightening the mood, for there were many stifled giggles when the gentleman toppled over an empty bottle of red wine onto the floor, jumped up to collect it and thereby hit the candle and Interflora box onto the new carpet, creating a small fire, much to the humiliation of his wife. An American gentleman from a nearby table quickly shot to his aid, as did a team of waiters who soon restored calm, but looked almost as embarrassed as the couple.
Jones makes full use of Lucknam’s extensive kitchen garden, with seasonal dishes which reflect the current produce, only adding to the pleasure. An amuse of celeriac velouté featuring chives and girolle mushrooms, proved a frothy, pleasing little opener and a good opportunity to sample some of the particularly fine home-baked bread, including an interesting laverbread variety that was incredibly flavoursome. A picture-perfect surf and turf starter of roast Scottish diver scallops was partnered with a crispy pork croquette packed with unctuous, smoky and subletly-spiced slow-cooked meat, while vibrant Heritage carrots, and a raisin and caper purée that was predominantly sweet rather than acidic added further technique and nuances of flavour, all of which were carefully balanced so as not to detract from the star of the show, an ingredient that nearly always seems to find its way onto fine dining menus yet remains notoriously difficult to cook perfectly.
The same can be said of the seabass I chose for main, a wonderful fish that can withstand so many flavours, yet must be soft and milky, as this was. Served with charred lettuce, roasted cauliflower, a suitably sweet and intense shellfish purée and brown shrimps, it was a harmonious celebration of the sea that never stopped being about the bass; its skin as crispy as the flesh was melting, while the sweet shellfish puree and salty brown shrimps tied everything together.
Pre-dessert featured calamasi from the Philippines, a fruit which, so our waiter kindly enlightened us, is a cross between a lemon and lime in flavour yet looks like a mandarin, and proved a lively palate cleanser when coupled with nostalgic sherbet and white chocolate and stood me in good stead for the decadent ‘Caraibe’ chocolate bar dessert, featuring a perfectly tempered dark chocolate thin, an indulgent pecan praline ice cream, toffee apples and a maple jelly. The ultimate chocolate fix, this dish like those preceding it, illustrated the pride which Hywel Jones takes in composing refined, classic dishes that are bound to please. While this restaurant may not offer many surprises, in this uncertain world that’s a very good thing.
Restaurant Hywel Jones at Lucknam Park Hotel, Colerne, Chippenham, Wiltshire, SN14 BAZ. For more information and reservations please visit the website.