Set in the striking medieval-Georgian-Victorian hotel Fawsley Hall, Equilibrium does just what its name suggests: it balances the archaic with the contemporary. Tom Vaughan reports
"Tomorrow's food in yesterday's room," says head chef Nigel Godwin. "If that doesn't sound too cheesy." Well, it kind of does. But it's also kind of right. In a 15th-century dining room, complete with original stone floor and fireplace, Godwin's modern food is in stark contrast to its medieval setting.
Godwin moved to Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire to set up Equilibrium in autumn 2008, the product of kitchens including Michelin-starred Knockinaam Lodge hotel in Portpatrick, Dumfries & Galloway Homewood Park hotel near Bath and Harvey's in Bristol.
The concept of the 27-seat restaurant has evolved since those early days, repositioning itself within the grand baronial hotel primarily to offer customers a dining experience alongside the more practical hotel brasserie.
It's a menu that could function only in a hotel, twinned with a more day-to-day brasserie. From start to finish the meal takes two to two-and-a-half hours, so as a standâ'alone restaurant relying on footfall it would do itself out of a great deal of drop-in business without an Á la carte. However, the obvious demand for an experience has given Godwin the chance to focus squarely on the formidable tasting menu.
The hallmark of Godwin's food is visual impact: a double-edged sword, as the theatrics might impress, but they also double the pressure on a dish to deliver. For example, an appetiser of foie gras and apple arrives under an upturned martini glass filled from a smoke gun. The histrionics pay off. Before it arrives, the sight of a smoky glass turning up at the neighbouring table excites interest when it arrives, the gentle taste of the smoke infuses the dish after it's gone, the waft from later diners reminds you of that smoky edge.
Godwin's signature dish is the three-plate pigeon starter, which arrives all at once. Plate one, a balottine of the breast, is poached then roasted with foie gras, wrapped in cured ham, and served with celeriac remoulade, hazelnut foam and pickled pear. Dish two is confit leg meat wrapped in gold leaf and sitting in a light broth, or "tea", made from the pigeon bones and a brunoise of vegetables. Dish three, a pigeon liver parfait, is served on the side with home-made brioche. It's a remarkable dish, considering that one bird makes two starters and Godwin buys his birds locally for about 50p each.
As well as providing diners with an experience, Godwin's aim is to offer as much value as possible for that £59. Luxurious items are present throughout: aside from the foie gras, there's a mushroom velouté with shaved truffles, John Dory with spiced scallop, raisins and capers, and fillet of beef with tempura shallots, cèpes, ox cheek and celeriac mash. All of this, and the kitchen is still comfortably hitting a 75% GP.
The dishes that stay in the memory are the ones where Godwin showcases his technical ability. For example, the Chocolate Textures dessert is a sort of medley of chocolate possibilities, much like the signature starter was with pigeon, and includes chocolate "sand", chocolate "wine" and a topâ'end chocolate shortbread. The cheese course is particularly intriguing - a creamy Roquefort ice-cream with caramelised pear and pickled walnut that promises to disappoint but somehow does the opposite.
The Equilibrium experience is certainly proving popular. The restaurant has been booked out on Friday and Saturday for the past month and is solid for the next three weeks. What makes all this possible - the luxury items, the seven courses, the £59 price point - apart from Godwin's creativity, is that there is only one other chef in the Equilibrium kitchen. "Everyone has to be careful in this climate, and I've set this precedent and am sticking with it," says Godwin. And that is how you guarantee value for £59.
Equilibrium at Fawsley Hall, Fawsley Hall Hotel, Fawsley, Northamptonshire NN11 3BA.
Tel: 01327 892000www.fawsleyhall.co.uk
What's on the menu
(Example seven-course tasting menu, £59)
- Foie gras and apple appetiser
- Cornish crab, avocado, caviar, lemon OR Roast pigeon and its own ice-filtered tea with parfait, pickled pear, celeriac, hazelnuts
- Celeriac velouté
- 55Â°C chump of lamb and daube with pommes Anna, anchovies, baby artichoke, basil jus OR
Seared John Dory, smoked eel, horseradish croquette, red wine onions, Fourme d'Ambert
- Roasted pear, pickled walnut, Roquefort
- Rhubarb vodka
Artichoke with artichoke crème, toasted oats, truffle ice-cream, olive oil gel OR
Avocado with bitter chocolate soufflé, avocado ice-cream and sea salt caramel
£19/£25 for two/three courses on a lunch and pre-theatre menu at the two-Michelin-starred L'Atelier de JoÁ«l Robuchon, London.