When it comes to expectation, there are many different kinds of restaurants. Those you hope are good but aren’t. The ones you have no idea about that turn out to be amazing. The few that you think will be good but are a horrible disappointment.
There are also the ones that you just know will be good. And they are. They deliver on all your expectations and also add a little bit of extra ‘je ne sais quoi’. Smoke at Hampton Manor is one of those. In my opinion anyway.
Maybe it’s because I waited so long to go so knew it would be good because basically the whole world had already tried it and delivered high praise for everything from the ambience to the now-famous boulangere potatoes. Maybe it’s because Smoke is somehow just the right balance of great food and relaxing atmosphere.
Or it could be because Stu Deeley and his team are wonderful people who seem to get that you can still be at the top of your game without making us mere mortals who pay the bill feel like we somehow don’t deserve to be eating the food that’s dished up – an attitude that seems to still exist in some restaurants. Especially those that get a big fanfare.
In case you haven’t heard of Smoke, it’s part of the wonderful place that is Hampton Manor in Hampton-in-Arden just outside Birmingham. Hampton Manor is also home to Michelin-starred Peels and its most recent addition, Grace and Savour. But as lovely as they sound, it’s Smoke that I’ve had my eyes on ever since those heady days of lockdown, where eating out involved a takeaway or dining ‘outside’ for a Peels pop-up in the Victorian glasshouse that is now home to Smoke.
Smoke’s name pretty much sums it up. Its home is the old furnace house, plus the glasshouse, and Stu – who won Masterchef The Professionals in case you didn’t know – cooks over coals. It’s got a rustic feel and there’s none of the very ‘cool’ graffiti or deliberate irreverence that apparently proves that someone is going against the grain and doing their own thing. Instead the focus seems to be on making guests comfortable, whether in the casual feel, the well-trained staff or the modern soundtrack.
The menu is simple. If you like wading through so many courses that you can’t keep track of what’s what and inevitably miss you train home, then maybe Smoke isn’t for you. But if you want the simple choice of starter, main and dessert, with the possibility of adding a ‘garden grazing’ board to kick things off, then you’ll be right at home here.
That’s how we feel anyway, as we walk in on a Friday night having caught the very easy train from Rugby (why I haven’t thought of this before I have no idea) and wandered round the corner from Hampton-in-Arden station. We have the choice of a table in the glasshouse, or a perch on the corner of a big shared table with a view across the restaurant and take the latter.
Don’t worry, for those of you fearing that you’ll have to join in with Smoke’s promise of ‘convivial gatherings’, there’s plenty of tables for two, but even that big sharing table has enough space between diners to ensure you’ve got privacy as well as the option to chat with your neighbours.
We start with the garden grazing board, because why wouldn’t you? The epitome of simplicity and a reflection of the pride Hampton Manor takes in using produce from its own grounds. Sweet, succulent beetroot and crispy kale, served up with sourdough that you can also buy from their bakery if you show up in the morning rather than the evening. Some Cobble Lane cured meats and a sexy chive emulsion adorned with pumpkin seeds that we find ourselves fighting over after the first taste.
Jamie’s starter is tiger prawns and cubes of celeriac nestled in a cloud-like foam of garlic butter sauce and finished with parsley oil. Refined, fresh and light. But it is my mushroom dumplings that win. Crispy gyoza-style parcels with a thwack of umami, emphasised even more by the mushroom broth they’re lovingly doused in. Pickled shimeji mushrooms add a bit of much-needed acid, balancing everything out to ensure that mushroomy moreishness can be seen to with another bite, and another, and another.
The main course menu offers something for everyone – pork, cod, chicken and cauliflower. And beef for the Mannings. Unable to resist a cote de boeuf at the best of times, we feel it would be downright rude not to try it here, cooked over coals and teamed with a madeira and bone marrow sauce and boulangere potatoes that get their own hefty mention in pretty much every review I’ve read of Smoke.
Of course the quality of the Hereford beef is top-notch. Of course it’s cooked perfectly. And of course that sauce is the kind of stuff you want to fill a bath with and wallow in for the rest of time.
And yes, everyone was right about the boulangere potatoes. Forget anaemic slices of potato swimming in a watery mess. These potatoes have been loved. Baked slowly in an iron skillet with onions that are sweet and sticky, it resembles a tarte tatin and seals the deal on our love of this place. The whole thing is washed down with glasses of red that are served from taps rather than bottles, much to my husband’s delight.
We’re not sure if we want dessert but yet again, we can’t help ourselves. By this point we feel like old friends of Beth, who is serving us and walks that fine line of being professional and polished yet friendly and fun with more skill than I’ve seen in a long time. She knows the menu inside and out, is passionate about what she does, and yet exudes the same welcoming warmth that seems to emanate from Smoke.
We plan to share one dessert. We end up with three and I’m laying the blame for that solidly at Beth’s door. Except it’s not blame, is it. It’s delight. A black forest delice is silky and rich, with fat sweet morello cherries on top. Thank god for the slightly tart, refreshing sorbet, otherwise one of us may have ended up in a chocolate-induced coma.
A buttermilk pannacotta delivers on the telltale tang, playing tastebud tennis with the sweet apricot and tart lemon thyme sorbet. But it’s the brown sugar brulee that is the highlight. Jamie declares it the best creme brulee he’s ever had and proceeds to devour most of it whilst moaning that he just can’t eat any more. He does.
We’re so relaxed we don’t want to leave. But the dream of finishing our meal with s’mores by the firepits next to the greenhouse has been ruined by rain earlier in the evening so instead we sup on cocktails outside while admiring the lit-up greenhouse and drunkenly declaring ourselves the luckiest people ever.
The evening is topped off by an appearance from Stu, who is either a very good actor or is genuinely grateful and overjoyed that people love his food. There’s a marked difference between his demeanour and that of certain other chefs doing great things and a refreshing humility that is so often lacking these days – not just in the world of food but pretty much everywhere.
We’re still raving about the experience when the train pulls back into Rugby. Not just the food, but the team, the ambience, the whole experience. The people at Michelin describe the food at Smoke as “simple, creative and packed with flavour”. They are, but it’s not just the food that has us waxing lyrical. It’s the warmth that runs through the whole team, from Stu to Beth to every single person we encounter.
Some restaurants are all about the chef. They’re cooking their food, for themselves, and you’re just along for the ride (and make sure you remember that). Smoke is about you, the diner, and it’s that attitude that makes it a firm favourite for me.
[We paid in full at Smoke. And it was worth every penny]