A new restaurant from rising star David Taylor takes a food-focused hotel in Warwickshire to new heights
You can argue the toss as to which part of the English countryside is the best for a weekend away. For some, it will always be the bays and beaches of the wild Cornish coast. Others, the gentle glories of Constable’s Suffolk, or the brooding magnificence of the Lakes. These days, the early adopters talk sotto voce about the coves and castles of Northumberland.
In this context, however, you never hear much about the wider Birmingham area. The outskirts of Solihull. And yet around these parts there is – nestled in a pleasant but unremarkable village just 10 miles from Brum – a country bolthole that boasts two of the finest restaurants in the country and single-handedly makes a case for the West Midlands.
Hampton Manor is a multi-faceted place. Run for the past 15 years by husband-and-wife team, James and Fjona Hill, the estate is a constantly evolving playground for adults that seems to acquire a whole new dimension every time you visit.
At the centre of it all is the main house, which was built in the 1850s for Robert Peel’s son and was rescued by the Hill family from its dowdy past life as a retirement home. Rooms are done out in the modern English style, all punchy patterns and bold colours. There is a simple restaurant in the building but the rooms aside, it’s really a place to hang out, either listening to records in the sitting room, or playing billiards in the bar.
Food-wise, the real action takes place 100 yards away at Stuart Deeley’s Smoke, which opened in 2021. The space is casual – exposed brick walls, a big sharing table – but the cooking is thrillingly precise. Here, the 2019 winner of MasterChef: The Professionals, serves up big, bold dishes, many of them cooked over wood. Think, umami-packed celeriac cooked in miso, gnocchi with a piquant carrot sauce, and Deeley’s famous boulangère potatoes that are worth a visit alone.
Smoke was joined, last year, by Grace & Savour, a stand-alone restaurant with five rooms, built from scratch on the site of an old timber yard. The lovely bedrooms – understated tonal colours and glorious great bathrooms – sit around a lush central garden and each one celebrates the site’s heritage with specially commissioned pieces by local artisans who work with wood.
Guests tend to stay at Grace & Savour for a single night, building their trip around David Taylor’s pioneering 15-course tasting menu, which heroically lights a path to a future in which sustainable farming might be paired with hands-down world-class food.
Having lived and worked in Norway for over six years – including a couple spent at three-Michelin-star Oslo powerhouse, Maaemo – he brings a Scandinavian sensibility to British ingredients, more than 90 per cent of which are organic, biodynamic, or regeneratively farmed in the UK. The remaining 10 per cent tend to be similar ingredients bought from Europe when there’s a shortage here. Anything that can’t be grown in the UK is verboten; instead of lemon he uses rhubarb juice, made from plants grown in the kitchen garden. As Taylor says: ‘It’s aromatic like lemon and it’s got the same level of acidity, but it has a sort of Britishness about it, a familiarity, so when you season things with it, it doesn’t feel out of sync.’
Sourcing ingredients with this kind of provenance has required Taylor and his team to build relationships with small independent farms dedicated to full-cycle farming of the sort that improves and regenerates soil and sequesters carbon. And his fidelity to genuine seasonality means that fermenting and pickling are much to the fore. He always has at least 40 jars in the back of his kitchen where he preserves the spoils of the year, everything from pickled green strawberries, bay leaf pickle and lacto-fermented honey.
If all of this sounds a bit worthy, the resulting food is nothing of the sort. You sit in a minimally furnished, light-filled space, and the dishes roll out, one after the other, each one beautifully plated, the micro flowers tweezered delicately into place. A fennel cracker comes piled with Cornish crab, pickled sea buckthorn and anise syrup. Burnt leeks are flavoured with Berkswell cheese and wild garlic. Skate wing is served with a sauce of smoked roe. The course that eases you from savoury to sweet contains caramelised whey and ewe’s milk sorbet of the sort that you won’t eat anywhere else.
The countryside around the estate is perfectly pleasant but not exactly life-changing. In terms of pastoral bliss Hampton-in-Arden is never going to rival the big-hitters, but when it comes to restaurants, it now holds its own and then some.
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