Christopher Basten, chef de cuisine at this Surrey country house hotel, is aiming for a third AA rosette and takes particular pride in sourcing produce straight from its garden. Dan Bignold reports
The diversity of business in a hotel always makes for an extremely busy kitchen, with banqueting, room service and breakfast to contend with in addition to a restaurant serving lunch and dinner for residents and non-residents alike.
However, for Christopher Basten, chef de cuisine at Great Fosters, a 16th-century former hunting lodge near Egham in Surrey, that diversity is no bar to having a high-quality restaurant operation. "Just because we're a country house hotel doesn't mean we can't run a fantastic restaurant," says Basten, who a couple of months ago was a finalist in the 2006 Knorr National Chef of the Year competition.
Basten and his team have their work cut out. The Tithe Barn, host to the majority of banquets, seats up to 200, and there's room for 80 in the Orangery. Two private dining rooms cater for up to 20 diners each, and a terrace overlooking the gardens to the rear of the property seats 40.
But it's the 60-seat fine-dining restaurant, the Oak Room, which Basten strives to make the jewel in the crown. With an eye on adding to the restaurant's existing two AA rosettes, flavour is paramount, and all produce is sourced with great care. Rare-breed meats such as British Lop pigs come from the Denham Estates, and their provenance is flagged up on the menu. The new autumn menu features a trio of Middle White pork, including a braised trotter and foie gras, five spice confit belly and a sage and onion faggot; and roast loin of Denham Estate venison is presented with curly kale, honeyed winter fruits and a chocolate foam.
Kingfisher of Brixham provides day-boat specials - recently a couple of boxes of sprats were dusted with cumin, pan-fried and served with a rocket and Parmesan salad - and on occasion the fish has come from closer to home. "There were some pike caught in the moat surrounding the hotel, so we seared them and served them with a shellfish and saffron nage," says Basten.
Other gutsy traditional British details on the autumn menu include an oxtail consommé to start that comes with herb dumplings. Many classics come with a twist. Saddle of English rabbit comes with rum-soaked prunes, smoked garlic gnocchi and caramelised salsify; Cornish mackerel is served as a confit with celeriac rémoulade, seed mustard potatoes and purée of autumn roots as a starter - the rum and the confit providing a contemporary touch. Average spend on the à la carte menu is £40, while the table d'hôte menu offers two courses for £26.50 and three for £32.50.
A huge asset to Basten's kitchen is the Great Fosters garden, which, thanks to its team of dedicated gardeners, produces a steady harvest of seasonal ingredients. There are greenhouses with treats including rocket, squashes, beans and tomatoes, while, near the kitchen, flourishing against the old red brick are bushes of mint, marjoram, rosemary and sage. An orchard bears fruit used to make chutneys, such as the apple chutney that, along with brioche, accompanies a starter of a compression of game, and even nettles growing wild find a use in the creation of a nettle gnocchi, which serves as a bed for fish such as John Dory.
The garden is a resource that Basten loves, not just for use in creating his menus - the fact that some of the produce is grown on site is very popular with customers - but for the education of his brigade. As captain of the Craft Guild of Chefs culinary team, he champions the education of younger chefs, and the kitchen gardens help him to teach them about the seasonality of produce. "From an educational point of view it's good for the boys to see the produce growing and then go out and pick it to use in the kitchen," he says.
Desserts at Great Fosters are largely based on classics: who can resist a Bramley apple charlotte served with Calvados ice-cream? And a selection of British and Irish cheeses appeals to those who
prefer a savoury end to their meal, while chocolate lovers are catered for with a Valrhona milk chocolate and coffee mousse with amaretto ice-cream.
What's on the menu
- Tart of Golden Cross goats' cheese and roasted baby vegetables, reduction of aged balsamic vinegar, salad of leaves and herbs
- Brixham crab and pancetta fishcake, curried artichoke purée, lime-infused diver scallops
- Cannelloni of squash and black mushrooms, sage velouté
- Pan-seared brill, razor clams and cockles, herb spätzle, shellfish consommé
- Wild sea bass, parsnip purée, saffron and salt cod risotto
- Open lasagne of Jerusalem artichokes and cèpes, winter truffle shavings, Parmesan cream
- Crème chibouste, kirsch cherries, blackcurrant ice and caramel
- Sticky toffee pudding, vanilla cream, poached baby pear
- Bramley apple charlotte, Calvados