[We paid in full for the Peel’s in the Garden pop-up at Hampton Manor, and it was worth every penny]
There are some meals that you know you’ll still be talking about for years to come. The ones you’ve thought about, got excited about, and anticipated like a kid waiting for Christmas Day. They’re also the ones that don’t just meet all those excited expectations, but triple-jump right past them, turning into one of the ‘pinch me’ moments that you can’t quite believe you’re lucky enough to be having.
For me, Peel’s in the Garden was one of those. Hampton Manor has been on my radar for a while. I visited once to interview Dr Sally Bell, who is Hampton Manor’s resident wellness expert, for a piece on feeling ‘hangry’. We sat in the dining room of Peel’s, Hampton Manor’s Michelin Star restaurant, and I knew at that moment that I’d have to come back.
Fast forward to the horrific year of 2020 and we had a takeaway from ‘Smoke’, Hampton Manor’s less formal restaurant tucked away in its walled gardens. When we picked it up and snaffled it in the van parked up outside the manor house, we talked about how lovely it would be to eat in that walled garden.
Lo and behold, in this weird period of restaurants only being able to open outdoors, Hampton Manor came up with an experience that I have no doubt will stick in everyone’s memories, not just mine. Peel’s in the Garden. Peel’s, taken outside, eating in a Victorian greenhouse with all the slick sophistication of a top-draw restaurant and all the al fresco safety required by the post-COVID world. Plus all the fairytale romance that comes with such a unique setting. Not just a mindless moving of restaurant food to an outdoor setting, but the creation of a completely new experience that embraces the outside rather than treating it as a compromise.
The menu is simple, with that self-assurance of a place that knows it can get its hands on excellent ingredients, either from its own gardens or from great suppliers, and doesn’t need to mess around too much with them – just allow them to sing for themselves, with all the backup of great accompaniments and balanced flavours and textures.
The service is calm and attentive without being earnest. There’s a wine pairing, obviously, and if you’re going to have this kind of experience I’d recommend you just go for it. We always do when budget allows, because not only does it force you out of your comfort zone, but it means you’ll get to experience that special, special moment, when the right wine and a great dish come together in a jaw-dropping moment of food-inspired joy.
As we soaked up the setting within the greenhouse, surrounded by plants, with the simplest of tables and place setting and a glass of NYE Timber, we started with Jerusalem artichoke. Pureed simply, with a crispy alter ego piled on top as well as toasted yeast. A subtle but firm wake-up call to your palate to remind you that, yes, tonight is going to be pretty darn good.
Next up was a generous dollop of the lightest, creamiest chicken liver parfait you can think of, topped with crispy chicken skin and a few sprigs of lemon thyme. Jamie has reliably informed me that he could eat a full main course sized plate of that parfait, though I remain unconvinced by his bravado.
Bread and butter is a staple at most restaurants these days, but Hampton Manor is here to remind you that not all bread and butter is created equal. I dreamed about their creations after our Smoke takeaway, and I was reminded of its greatness on our latest experience.
I can’t really even describe exactly what makes it so good. It could be the crispy, slightly bitter crust, or maybe the unbelievable lightness of the bread it hides inside. Who knows, it’s great. You should try it.
Next up was wild garlic soup, poured over tender potatoes and topped with herbs from Hampton Manor’s garden. Raved about by many, including me, though other courses on the night pipped it to the post as my favourite. Paired with a Riesling, it was the quintessential spring menu dish that somehow softened the fact that despite us all enjoying balmy nights in that long-ago lockdown spring of 2020, they’ve deserted us now when we need them most.
Wye Valley asparagus, green and white to showcase the difference in flavour and texture between the two, was teamed with chunks of tender, fall-apart duck and a creamy Berkswell cheese sauce that it took most of my willpower not to lick off that beautifully crafted crockery. Instead I was distracted by the Soave ‘Calvarino’ wine from Veneto in northern Italy that was unlike any wine I’ve ever had and justifiably dominated the conversation between us wine amateurs. Yet again, the joy of a wine pairing.
In my own limited experience, the best menus mimic the best music. They start off gently, taking you along with them in their crescendo to that wonderful, dramatic climax, before gradually letting you down to save you the heartbreak of it actually being over.
That’s exactly what this menu did, with the barbecue leek, charred on the outside and silky and sweet inside, then piled high with brown shrimp in an XO butter, taking things up a level. The umami punch from the XO, the sweetness of the shrimp and the leek, the slight bitterness of the char, all combining to make one of those dishes that you chew super slowly in an effort to eek it out for as long as possible. Made all the nicer by the fragrant Albarino from Galicia that it was paired with. I don’t know much about wine, but I know I loved this.
And so to the main. Troutsdale Farm Hogget – both loin and belly, the latter of which was the showstopper for me as it melted away in your mouth. A sweet, yielding onion, purple sprouting broccoli two ways, including a smooth puree that played tricks on your eyes and tastebuds. Creamy curd, and a glistening, meaty jus that pulled everything together just as it should.
With this course we had the choice of two wines. A French Malbec that would have more than sufficed, or the upgrade to a ‘Showstopper’ Pinot Noir which of course we couldn’t help but do for one of the glasses, indulging in our own little amateur taste test. Again, I don’t know much, but all I can say is that sometimes it’s worth paying extra for something that bit special. Yes, I could tell the difference, and yes it was worth every penny.
The final chapter in our evening of escapism was the simplest of desserts and the best I’ve had in a very long time. Roasted peach, served with a dinky almond cake and a dollop of yoghurt. Perfectly executed, with each mouthful of sweet peach and moist, rich, sweet cake, carefully balanced by the slight sourness of the yoghurt.
Its team-mate and partner in what is one of the most perfect pairings I’ve ever tried was a late harvest Chenin Blanc from Margaret River in Australia. So delicious that we couldn’t help but order a half bottle of the stuff to enjoy into the night. I used to think wine pairings were made up to justify swanky menus and big mark-ups, but as I said in this blog post from a wine lunch a few years ago at The Cross in Kenilworth, once you’ve had a pairing that really works, that makes both elements sing and all the flavours ‘pop’ in a medley of loveliness, you’ll have them again and again in a quest for that same moment.
Everything at Peels in the Garden has been thought through, and that includes the finale to your experience. Rather than being ejected into the cold and waved off by staff keen to get home, you move outside to huddle (socially-distanced of course) around fire pits where you toast marshmallows for your own homemade s’mores whilst (in our case) finishing off the bottle of wine you felt the need to purchase, and adding a few post-dinner drinks on top of it.
Those extra drinks and my hangover the next day were testament to what I think Hampton Manor probably always endeavours to create – an experience that you simply don’t want to end. In a world that has thrown so much at us that we want to flee or hide from, this kind of experience is exactly the kind of escapism you need.
An Alice in Wonderland evening in all the right ways, it challenges you, treats you, welcomes you, and leaves your belly full, your mind boggling, and sporting a smile that goes far beyond you mouth and reaches right into your soul. Maybe that’s overkill, who knows. But after a year of imagining these kind of experiences, a little enthusiasm overkill never harmed anyone, right?
While the last year has been awful for so many, and for the hospitality sector as a whole, I can’t help but think that one silver lining is that experiences like this that may potentially never have come about with COVID and all the changes it’s brought to our door.
It’s for that reason that I’ll always be grateful that that moment of sitting around a fire pit, toasting marshmallows and supping on dessert wine, discussing the meal we’d enjoyed against the backdrop of the glasshouse and the laughter of friends and families enjoying the same experience will forever be ingrained in my memory. Thank you Hampton Manor.