The landmark restaurant in this historic mansion is now open to the public for the first time. Peter Morrell reports.
The feeling crept up on me that eating at Humphry’s was going to be something rather special. It started when we turned into the gates of Stoke Park, having been at Paddington station less than half an hour earlier. Suddenly we were on a carriage drive surrounded by 350 acres of parkland, lakes, gardens and monuments designed by those two masters of landscaping ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphry Repton. Set unobtrusively into this pristine setting is a golf course designed by the legendary Harry Colt in 1908.
The jewel in this idyllic landscape is the mansion itself, designed by James Wyatt for John Penn, part of the family that founded Pennsylvania. It is beautifully proportioned, capped by a gleaming white cupola and positioned on the estate to give views in all directions.
Stoke Park was the UK’s first country club and has over the years evolved into a hotel, spa and golf club. The Mansion has 21 bedrooms and there are a further 28 suites in the nearby Pavilion which also houses a spa and gym. Until recently only hotel residents and club members have been able to eat in Humphry’s restaurant but it is now open to the general public for lunch and dinner.
We started by meeting the executive chef Chris Wheeler who joined Stoke Park in 2003. He has an impressive culinary record including being right hand man to Jean Christophe Novelli, this success has continued with Humphry’s winning the AA two rosettes award. Chris is a strong advocate of using fresh, seasonal, local ingredients as the basis for his modern British cuisine.
As we talked about food trends, one being that fine dining is still popular, we sampled some of Chris’s canapés. Crab stuffed cherry tomatoes, potted foie gras with mushroom ‘caviar’, quail’s eggs and the most delightful savour macaroons were all well judged and delicious. This rather special feeling I had coming up the drive was getting decidedly stronger.
We also enjoyed the company of Nick Downie, the Communications Manager at Stoke Park, our very genial host for the day. He told the story of the Mansion and some of its more recent history as the location for movies like Goldfinger, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Layer Cake.
It was time to move into the dining room, elegantly decorated, it had a most splendid view of a bridge which spans the lake. This bridge was design by Humphry Repton, hence the name of the restaurant.
The service was impeccable, we started with an amuse bouche of white fish with ratatouille, it had precise flavours and was emblematic of what was to come. As we scanned the menu we realised that choosing what to eat was going to be a difficult task. Starters like pan fried scallops and Berkshire ham hock both looked very tempting but my eventual selection was Dorset crab, king prawns and avocado tian with cucumber, soft boiled quails egg and pink grapefruit segments.
It was a good choice, the presentation was superb and the quality was first rate. I was now convinced that this lunch was something very special. Mains gave us an equal dilemma; the halibut looked inviting but in the end the roast supreme of duck with seared foie gras escalope, parsnips puree, green beans and blackberry Jus won the day.
This dish had some deep, satisfying flavours and the contrasting textures of the duck and the foie gras really did showcase just how good the food is in the restaurant.
The desserts were less of a challenge, the whimsical, but clever, deconstructed ‘Snickers’ bar leapt off the page. Milk chocolate and peanut mousse were lined up with salted chocolate caramel, caramel foam and peanut tuile to produce an enjoyable finale to an excellent meal.
There is a well considered wine list with a good selection of both old and new world vintages starting from a very reasonable £23 a bottle and the wines by the glass are a good option for lunchtime.
As well as being open for lunch and dinner Stoke Park also offers a number of packages that allow you to really spoil yourself and your loved one. For example, the overnight Celebration Break includes a bottle of champagne, hand-made chocolates, fresh fruit, a three course dinner and breakfast, and includes use of the sports facilities and indoor pool.
There are very few places that can create a sense of occasion when having a meal but Humphry’s does it with style. It’s the total package, the grounds, the imposing mansion, the decor, the calm country house atmosphere, the quality of the food, the cooking and the attentive service all made the lunch a unique eating experience
Review date 3rd July 2012