Restaurant review: Down Hall, Hatfield Heath
PUBLISHED: 10:12 09 January 2016
Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne visits the grill room of this Anglo-French restaurant
Down Hall Country House, near Hatfield Heath on the border between east Herts and west Essex, dates from Tudor times, though little is known of its history before 1720. Its first significant mention records that the estate was bought by the poet Matthew Prior, who also arranged for the 10 acres of gardens to be laid out by the landscape artist Charles Bridgeman.
Prior died a year later and the house spent the next few decades passing through various owners until the First World War. It then became a sanatorium for wounded soldiers, was sold later at auction, and then bought in 1986 by the Veladail Group, which has operated it since as a four-star hotel.
Interesting histories deserve interesting restaurants and at Down Hall that mission is taken on by the Grill Room (opposite), where head chef Matthew Hill oversees a seasonal Anglo-French menu supported by produce from the hotel’s vegetable garden. In keeping with its surroundings, it’s a stately, traditional space, yet cosy and comfortable with a recent refurbishment contributing Italian wood floors, dark wood tables, red leather seats and lots of natural daylight.
The fixed-price menu has two courses at £25.95 and three at £32.50 and on the evening of my visit offered, alongside more standard options, starters including a tomato terrine with goat’s curd, olive and basil, along with steamed mackerel with carrot jelly, squid ink and baby carrots. Eye-catching mains included slow-cooked sea bream with leek, butternut squash, pickled radish and bisque, plus a selection of steaks and pork dishes from the grill.
For all that, our tastes were on the conservative side that night, so a starter of roast pigeon breast with a smoked hen’s egg, cucumber and balsamic was about as exotic as we wanted. The two thick slices of meat were properly done, moist and the right colour inside and out, but as ever it was the accompaniments that made the point. The egg was a clever and tasty touch and the cucumber and balsamic lent contrasting flavours to the whole.
The same applied across the table, where pan-fried scallops (opposite), a regular choice for my companion, came with burnt apple purée, baby leek and celeriac sauce. The add-ons certainly gave a different slant to the dish but the overall squidginess – her word – might not appeal to everyone. Tasty but somewhat over-complicated was the verdict.
For mains, a flavourful and generous chunk of pan-fried coley with crushed new potato and kale was distinguished by the addition of pickled cockles and caviar cream, which may seem an odd combination but offset the fishiness well. My other half’s roast pheasant (below) was a smaller dish and came with root vegetables and more unusual additions in the shape of grape raisins and truffle, another sweet-and-savoury mix to perk up the tastebuds. There was nothing much to go wrong there and nothing did, so positive verdicts in each case.
There was a minor quibble with the warm caramelised apple cake dessert (above) – it promised an apple granita accompaniment which turned out to be a sorbet (the menu was later altered) but it was not enough to sway our opinion – that the Grill Room is well worth checking out if you like quality straightforward food with the occasional twist served in historic and comfortable surroundings.
The cost of dinner for two in the Grill Room at Down Hall was £68.70, including two glasses of wine and a service charge of 10 per cent.
This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and visited by our food and drink editor.
The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.