Danesfield House, Marlow
You and I are not the only ones in search of fresher air, less noise, and a better quality of life in general. A lot of those chefs who made London such an interesting place to eat are moving to the country to raise their families and be in charge of their destinies. They’re converting pubs, taking over defunct restaurants, and moving into hotels, where they’re enjoying the luxury of kitchens designed for them and being given a free hand when recruiting cooks and bakers. (The freedom’s working – two relocated chefs won Michelin stars almost immediately.)
One of the more notable émigrés is Aiden Byrne, fresh off a two-year stint as head chef at Tom Aikens, where he seemed to be a creative and steadying influence, and with a decade at several other star restaurants buoying him up. The venue is a large, extraordinary castellated mansion, something of a folly built ‘with a disregard of expense’ in a style known locally as ‘Italian Renaissance’. It overlooks the Thames Valley, and has been, since the 17th century, a residence, school, RAF base, corporate headquarters, and now a luxury hotel and spa. It may make you laugh the first time you see it, but you will eat astoundingly well there.
The menus are laconic, more restrained than the cooking, so it was something of a surprise to see plates covered with what look like abstract masterpieces, more elaborate than suspected: Salt cod mousse arrived garnished with dabs of beetroot jelly, puffs of beetroot foam, chunks of pickled beetroot, hillocks of avocado purée livened by lemon, and translucent, curly shavings of fennel dressed in very virginal olive oil. There were more marriages on the plate than at a Las Vegas chapel at midnight, but the array of flavours matched beautifully. Juicy breast of mallard came with unctuous artichoke heart, a great idea. Sea bass sat serenely next to a suave chorizo risotto featuring the spicy sausage two ways (one of them a beignet), modified by sweet ham and just enough rosemary to tie it all together. Lamb at what the chef grumbled was ‘the wrong time of year, but everybody wants it’ was made right, and as tender as a baby’s bottom, by judicious slow-poaching before quick-roasting, and served with an anchovy-tapenade filo-crust tart and a rich smear of sweet onion purée. Every touch made sense, and it was one of the best meals I’ve had in at least a year.
The wine list is billed as a work in progress, not up to the standard of the cooking, but with some good vintages from Léoville-Barton, Lynch-Bages, Cloudy Bay, Chapoutier, Chiarlo, Nalle, Far Niente, and Isole e Olena’s Cepparello, as well as some bargains from South America. I was told an upgrade was imminent. Monthly cooking tutorials and demonstrations are also underway; I suspect you won’t find sexier culinary tips anywhere else.