Martin Hadden had wanted a restaurant of his own for almost as long as he’d wanted a Michelin star. That the two ambitions were realised at the same time was a fluke. Contracts were exchanged on a new restaurant in Somerset – where Hadden and his wife, Michelle, planned to move – two days before publication of the Michelin Guide which recognised his work at Ockenden Manor in Sussex.
The Priory House restaurant in pretty, rural Stoke-sub-Hamdon near Yeovil is the setting for the Haddens’ new ambitions. They bought the freehold on the property, previously a brasserie, for £156,000 and started work immediately to transform it into a 30-seat fine-dining restaurant. The existing kitchen was refurbished by London firm Crane Catering, and Martin Hadden called in favours to keep opening costs at just £18,000.
Chris Dovey, a former butler with the Royal household, joined as maitre d’ and Hadden’s younger brother, Chris, came on board straight from catering college to provide the only support in Hadden’s new kitchen. Barely two-and-a-half weeks after taking the keys, the Haddens opened Priory House.
Four months on, Hadden looks back on the early days with serenity. “Giving up a salary when you’ve got a family is scary, and I didn’t know how the locals would react,” he admits, safe in the knowledge that he now fills the restaurant, which is closed Sunday and Monday, two or three evenings a week. In a typical week, he’ll do 150 covers, at an average spend, including wine, of £38 per head, with most guests coming from within a 15-mile radius. “There are good places not too far away – such as Gidleigh Park, Charlton House and the Horn of Plenty – but we looked closely at whether there’d be room for us,” he says. “So far, we’ve not been proved wrong.”
Hadden is beginning to get used to cooking for a different type of client from his London days at Chez Nico and the Halcyon hotel (see panel). “Sometimes I feel people here see us as the opposition, worried you’re going to rip them off,” he says. “Spend is OK, but sometimes I have to induce it out of them.”
So what do they eat? Hadden’s monthly-changing menu includes four starters, main courses and puddings, priced at £24 for two courses and £28 for three. Cheese is an option, and coffee and petits fours are an extra £2.50. “I’m trying to cook safely at the moment, so we’re doing well-rehearsed dishes,” says Hadden. “There’s nothing outlandish, no mad combinations. Everything’s very sensible.”
Some are creations that have been inspired by previous employers, such as the Thai chicken soup with coconut milk, coriander and lemon grass (courtesy of Shaun Hill, with whom he worked at Gidleigh Park), or Nico Ladenis’s sliced corn-fed chicken breast with morel mushrooms and baby leeks.
And although he has never worked with Marco Pierre White, Hadden includes on the Priory House menu a version of White’s duck liver and foie gras parfait with toasted brioche. “There’s not a chef in this country who’s not cooked at least part of a Marco dish,” he says. “The parfait is lovely. It’s not mine but I don’t care.”
Fish, supplied mostly through Brixham-based Channel Fisheries, sells well. Typical dishes are grilled fillet of red mullet with red pepper sauce, tapenade and pesto; and curry-dusted fillet of cod with caramelised endive and garlic confit. The grilled scallops in crispy pastry with a chive veloute (see recipe) is a particular favourite and a dish he devised with Ladenis while the two were working minutes from each other – Ladenis at his gastro temple in Park Lane, Hadden at the Halcyon. “The pastry takes four minutes to cook in the oven, which is perfect for the scallop,” Hadden says. “It comes out beautifully crisp.”
A crispy salmon teriyaki (see recipe) is another Chez Nico inheritance. “Nico is very French and classical, but one day he agreed to this,” Hadden says. “It’s a kebab – thin slices of salmon alternated with pickled ginger on a bamboo skewer. It’s cooked skin-side down on the griddle so the skin goes crispy, and is served on shredded white cabbage cooked in spices and a plum jus.”
About 75% of diners take a pudding at Priory House. Most popular are the orange and raisin crème caramel with chilled Grand Marnier parfait, and the warm chocolate tart with almond cream (see recipe).
Ingredients are bought locally where possible, though Hadden does buy Aberdeen Angus beef from Donald Russell and uses London’s Covent Garden market when necessary. His determination to offer only French cheeses is brave, given his location. “The South-west probably produces more cheeses than anywhere else in England,” he says. “Local cheeses have won awards, but throw Cornish Yarg into a French arena and it’d get dumped on. I really want local and English things to be the best, but I can’t set aside my own palate when I’m buying. If I can buy better quality elsewhere, I will.”
It’s a similar story with chicken. “I buy French corn-fed chicken breasts at £1.30 apiece,” he says, “because I feel French poultry is better than English, on the whole.”
What does the future hold? Hadden is focused. “I want a Michelin star,” he says. “I think I have a better chance of winning one in a place where I am doing all the cooking.” He’s the first to admit his food is simple and straightforward, but will Michelin like it? Hadden pauses and smiles. “Yes,” he says. “I hope so.” n
The Priory House, 1 High Street, Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Somerset TA14 6PP
Tel: 01935 822826