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So far, so good. Monsieur and I may not have been walking down the aisle, hand in hand, or trying to knock our female friends unconscious with a low-flying bouquet, but we were certainly enjoying our private celebration of The Wedding that Wasn’t. In one afternoon we’d checked in to a wedding cake hotel, hung out at the driving range, practised our putts and swum in an indoor heated pool. All that activity had worked up our appetites, so we spruced up and set off downstairs to dine at the Club’s Park Restaurant.
As we were greeted by the maître d’ – “Good evening, Madame-Sir,” following him into a sumptuous dining room, my heart sank. Our day at Stoke Park had been wonderful; how ever was dining here going to live up to our now extremely high expectations?
Monsieur and I were seated at a table for two in the centre of the room; we were not by a window nor tucked comfortably into a plush banquette by the wall. At first I felt a little exposed but we soon overcame that hurdle when the menus appeared. Then, torn between food porn and people-watching I realised that the tables were spaced out in a way that our neighbours’ conversation could not be overheard. At least, not yet. I do like that in a restaurant.
The bread basket was offered and I permitted myself one soft, small brown bun, still warm from the oven. The butter melted slowly into it indicating that it wasn’t too hot or cold, just perfect. Then it was time for some Serious Decision-making as we selected our starters. There was something on the menu for every palate, including vegetarians. Would I choose the pan-fried scallops with celeriac purée, crispy pancetta, port reduction and caviar? Or perhaps I’d try the ragout of chicken winglets, chorizo, girolles and flageolet beans, served inside a filo casserole pan with madeira jus? Even the vegetarian option was sophisticated as opposed to a tie-dyed celebration of lentils; Stoke Park veges could enjoy the goat’s cheese, sweet potato and basil roulade with pear and fig salad and walnut vinaigrette.
Following our amuse bouches of a mushroom cappuccino?? (at least, I think that’s what it was) served with tiny spoon in tiny Mad Hatter’s teacup, the starters appeared, and not a moment too soon, for the afternoon’s activities had caused a persistent rumble in my stomach. I’d chosen the decadence of seared foie gras served on a brioche crouton with baby spinach, red grapes, pomegranate and sweet muscat sauce. Neither piled high nor lilliputian, the starter’s serving was just the right size to stimulate the tastebuds without overloading them.
Monsieur’s first course was a tian of Dorset crab, lobster, prawn and avocado with a cucumber and pink grapefruit dressing. It arrived shaped into a small but perfect tower on the plate, a work of culinary art. Apparently there are various definitions for tian, from layered vegetable preparations to casserole dishes, but in this case it took the meaning of layered presentation. I could tell that Monsieur was torn between tearing into it with his fork and simply contemplating its beauty from afar. The ending here was somewhat predictable, though, and the tian was consumed in its entirety.
We ate slowly, savouring each morsel, for this was not food to be rushed, and we were not in a hurried environment, although the maître d’ often appeared to check that everything was as it should be, each time calling us “Madame-sir”. He was practised in the efficient running of a fine dining establishment, that much was certain, dashing in silent fashion from table to table, seating any new arrivals, farewelling those on their way out, flourishing menus and assisting with wine selection or the deciphering of gastronomic terminology.
In between mouthfuls, Monsieur and I were thoroughly enjoying alternating between a delicious chablis and thirst-quenching Hildon water but we didn’t have long to contemplate grapey notes between courses. Our mains arrived at just the right interval, having allowed us time to ruminate over our delicious starters but not enough time to fret over tardiness in the kitchens.
Monsieur was in carnivore’s heaven with his Beef Wellington. Served with seasonal chanterelles and warm cherry tomatoes (still on the vine)on a bed of mash, he thought nothing of ordering sautéed potatoes to add to his meat- ‘n’-two-servings-of-the-same-veg main. (It even came with the letters SPC in puff pastry – the initials of the Club).
My choice was the trio of fish. Presented on an oval, almost fish-shaped platter with thumb hole at one end for serving, I enjoyed three entirely different, yet complementary, types of fish. First was red mullet ‘escabèche, a delightfully tender fish with zesty marinade. Next was John Dory with pea purée and confit fennel, which struck me as a humourous five-star approach to fish ‘n’ mushy peas. Last on the platter was sea bream with baby provençale vegetables – essentially a ratatouille of mini-veg to match the serving size. For a fish lover, such as me, this was heaven. With a few sautéed spuds pinched from Monsieur’s side order, I couldn’t fault it. Everything tasted freshly-caught, ‘never seen a freezer’, and had evidently been prepared with the utmost attention to the detail of both recipe and presentation.
But we hadn’t finished yet. Oh, yes, there was still dessert to come, and somehow, thanks to considerate portions, we miraculously had room to accommodate another course.
Monsieur tried the Tiramisu Plate – a chocaholic’s perfect falling-off-the-wagon platter. Everything was tiny – the bitter chocolate pot, the artful spoonful of mascarpone and kahlua ice cream, a teeny coffee soufflée and quenelle of tiramisu. Yet the richness of the combination of small tastes just about finished Monsieur off. Even so, I don’t think he would ever have considered not finishing every last bit.
Feeling in the need of a fromage fix, I indulged in the cheese platter. “But please, no blue cheese,” I told the waitress, feeling very When Harry Met Sally in such a high-maintenance demand. Sure enough, the cheeseboard arrived laden with perfect small slices of soft cheeses and hard cheeses but not a blue in sight. I didn’t touch the homemade walnut bread, which looked wonderful but which would only have stolen the last precious intestinal centimetres reserved for cheese. Instead I nibbled on the oatcakes and grapes and perfect slivers of celery to temper the strength of the cheeses and even so, I was quite ready to turn my back on food for a few hours at the end.
And so, feeling like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Monsieur and I rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and up the narrow set of stairs to our room, where we had earlier stored a bottle of New Zealand’s Lindauer bubbly (if you haven’t tried this yet, do! It’s affordable and doesn’t give you a sore head the following day.) with which to celebrate The Wedding That Wasn’t. We needed ice so called the porter who brought it to the door within minutes, asking, with glint in his eye, if we’d like champagne flutes. Either he’d done the turn-down earlier, spotting our bottle chilling in one of the sinks (there was strangely no fridge or mini-bar in the otherwise beautifully appointed room) or he was accustomed to people bringing their own bubbles to Stoke Park. Once he’d left, I couldn’t decide if this chap was superb customer service, a psychic in our midst or a spy.
Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. Monsieur and I lay there in the Hastings Room, warm and comfortable on the soft bed, sipping on bubbly and talking about the superb day we’d just had. But no, we couldn’t laze about for long. We had to get a full night’s sleep, for the next day we’d be trying our hand at the championship golf course. Tee off was set for 9.40am and you can’t play 18 holes without breakfast.