Dinner at Sopwell House, St Albans
PUBLISHED: 15:58 11 December 2017
Brian Arnopp Images
Sopwell House Hotel in St Albans serves up a meal to remember for food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne
With the festive season upon us, Sopwell House Hotel in St Albans has reason to celebrate a good year. From the foodie perspective, the crowning achievement was in July, when the four-star property’s The Restaurant was awarded a second AA Rosette. The AA states two Rosettes indicate ‘excellent restaurants that aim for and achieve higher standards and better consistency. A greater precision is apparent in the cooking, and there will be obvious attention to the selection of quality ingredients’.
In the crowded field of food accolades, the AA’s are better regarded than many. Only around 40 per cent of the venues in the AA Restaurant Guide have two Rosettes and fewer than 10 per cent have three. The system has contributed to the gradual change in attitude toward hotel restaurants, which have tended to have an image problem. It’s often related to the perceived price of the meals and sometimes the idea that chefs are catering to a captive audience (hotel guests). There is a way still to go, but the hotels themselves have been tackling the problem, with the result it is no longer considered strange to eat out in them.
Sopwell House won its second Rosette by accomplishing precision ‘throughout all its cooking’, while The Restaurant also received recognition for the high quality, seasonal produce on its menus. The AA inspector described his experience as ‘smart dining in Mountbatten’s former country home’.
All this follows the arrival in 2014 of Gopi Chandran (formerly of Ware’s Hanbury Manor) as Sopwell’s executive head chef, followed in 2015 by Matthew Bird as head chef. In April this year, Sopwell gained a new general manager, Thomas Garlich, from Luton Hoo Hotel Golf and Spa, where he was resident manager for eight years. Throughout, the 128-bedroom hotel, with 16 mews suites, two restaurants, cocktail lounge and conservatory bar, along with a conference and wedding business, has been steadily refurbished, with an expansion of the spa the latest development.
Arrival of the new Rosette was enough to whet the appetite, as it were, confirmed by the online ‘sample menu’. The menu bore little resemblance to the real one when we arrived but was a fair indication of flair at work in the kitchen. Examples given among the starters included soused mackerel with charred cucumber, honey mustard, dill and tapioca, while a typical main course was poached and grilled breast of guinea fowl with dauphinoise potato, morel sauce and braised Savoy cabbage. Among desserts lurked a dark chocolate mousse with cherry griottine gel and pistachio ice cream.
It sounded exotic and the menu of the day of our visit was no less so, a mix of the familiar and the adventurous. My starter proved the point, an artichoke poivrade with Kalamata crumb, the latest trendy version of tapenade, with tomato sponge and basil, a bold venture but tasty with it. My other half was pleased to find the promised guinea fowl after all, but as a starter in the form of a pressing of confit guinea fowl with trumpet mushrooms, scorched Roscoff onions and truffle mayonnaise. As with the artichoke, note the familiar with the unusual to create a one-of-a-kind dish which, also like the artichoke, proved a rare treat.
Main courses were more straightforward while still indicating a confident hand at work, with my loin of Highland venison (left) one of the softest cuts I have had and the correct colour and flavour too. Accompaniments, with the change of season looming, hit the right note, with spiced red cabbage, roast beets and celeriac. Across the table, a generous pan-fried halibut with broccoli purée, tenderstem broccoli, Nori gnocchi and herb emulsion was received with equal enthusiasm.
More fashionable touches were evident in the desserts (this was a fixed-price menu at £39.50 for three courses), with my warm almond and pear tart distinguished by saffron crémeux and cinnamon ice cream, again hitting the right late-autumn note. Salted honey cake with caramel cream plus apple and Calvados ice cream had my companion almost breaking into applause for its consistency and sweetness, the whole thing set off by the presentation, a detail that applied to all the dishes, but especially the puddings.
Eating out normally falls into one of three categories – Basic (I can’t be bothered to cook, let’s go to Pizza Express), Medium (There’s a new restaurant in town, let’s try it) and Special Treat. The latter is self-explanatory and our evening at Sopwell House qualified. Amuse-bouches before and careful and polite service throughout simply sealed the deal.
About the only thing missing was more people. The Restaurant is an attractive setting in its new-ish décor and deserves more atmosphere than that generated by the dozen or so customers in the room on the evening I visited, a Friday. I went for the food, so no problem and it’s better than the recent tendency to pack in as many customers as possible. No doubt with the full festive finery about to go up and more discerning diners thinking of where to go, it will find its feet. The fixed-price menu is a bargain, but beware the cost of the wine. Tell your friends.
Sopwell House, Cottonmill Lane, St Albans AL1 2HQ
01727 864477. sopwellhouse.co.uk
The cost of this dinner for two was £100.93 including one glass of wine and service.
This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.
3 of a kind
Richard recommends three more Hertfordshire hotel restaurants
1. The Grove
Chandler’s Cross, Watford WD3 4TG. 01923 807807 Five-star hotel and luxury golf and spa resort with multiple food offerings led by Colette’s fine-dining restaurant under executive head chef Harry Lomas.
Stevenage Road, Little Wymondley SG4 7JR. 01438 729500 Picturesque country property under new ownership and featuring a 70-cover conservatory restaurant and a range of private dining rooms.
3. Luton Hoo
The Mansion House, Luton LU1 3TQ. 01582 734437
A choice of fine dining in the grand surroundings of exotic marble panelwork and richly-coloured fabrics in the Wernher Restaurant or the more informal Adam’s Brasserie.