Roux Scholar Paul O'Neill has found his home as head chef in this East meets West restaurant. Neil Gerrard reports
The hotel, owned by Sarah and Fevzi Arikan, is quirky and individual, with plenty of references to Fevzi's roots in Turkey, despite its Victorian English manor house setting. The name Hattusa comes from Fevzi's passion for ancient civilisations, named after the capital of the Hittite empire in the late Bronze Age.
O'Neill has been given free rein to develop the menu as he sees fit. "I can do what I want, which is great," he says. "There are not that many people at Berwick Lodge who come from a hotel background, so I get involved in what they need to be selling and where we need to be going with it. Loosely, my food is modern British. We try to use the seasons and I want to keep the dishes nice and fresh."
When The Caterer visits, the seasons are just changing from winter to spring, and O'Neill has introduced a starter of ham hock (£9), with smoked ham broth, peas, broad beans, pearl barley and a ham hock dumpling.
While the restaurant was originally billed as an "East meets West" experience, the references to the East are relatively muted, although they do come into play in certain dishes, such as the spring lamb with ras el hanout-spiced loin, harissa pastilla, chickpeas, apricots and mint yogurt (£22). It's a delicately spiced dish which, like a lot of O'Neill's cooking, is flavoursome without being heavily seasoned.
"So many chefs just throw salt on things because they think it is going to make it taste better. With the lamb, the crumb is the seasoning, and if we do salt it, it will be a little bit after it is carved," O'Neill explains.
Another feature of his cooking is sweetness, which can be seen in dishes like the hot smoked salmon with horseradish potato salad, asparagus and pickled cucumber, paired with linseed biscuit (£10), and also in the starter of duck liver with pickled rhubarb, rhubarb compôte, brioche and fennel crumb (£12). The latter is one of O'Neill's favourites, as well as being a popular choice with diners.
"We add the linseed biscuit and the pickled cucumber to balance those smoky and salty flavours," says O'Neill. "It's the same with the foie gras and rhubarb - you don't want it too sweet, and you want sharpness from the rhubarb."
Those sorts of combinations are not what you might expect from classic two-AA-rosette hotel food, but O'Neill says most customers are pleasantly surprised. "I think some of them expect classic butter sauces," he says. The more adventurous modern approach is epitomised in a dessert like the cranberry, almond and Tunworth tart, with cranberry relish and truffle honey ice-cream (£9). "It's a little bit 'out there', and some people love it, and others think it is a bit too much," he admits.
At the moment the deceptively large restaurant - it can seat 70 or up to 80 for weddings - sees about 10-20 covers on weekday evenings and 30-40 at weekends, but trade is building.
O'Neill has worked seven-day weeks for four-and-a-half months to get the restaurant up and running and his brigade of four chefs bedded in, and now he has an eye on a third AA rosette. But regardless of how long it takes him to achieve that, he is happy running his own restaurant for the first time. "After so many years being senior sous, it is nice to crack on and do what I want to do and the food that I believe in."
And that stint at Gagnaire's restaurants has taught him a valuable lesson, but not simply as far as cooking techniques are concerned. "When I went to Pierre Gagnaire, so many people asked me 'What did you learn?'" he says. "And what I learned was what style of food I wanted to do, what I like, and where I wanted to go with my food."
From the menu
- Langoustine poached in seaweed butter, charred apple purée, fennel, £12
- Spring vegetables and curd, peas, broad beans, carrots, soft quail egg, £9
- Pork and scallop - cured loin, cider-glazed cheek, roasted scallop, apple, girolles, broad beans, £24
- Stone bass, warm potted shrimp, braised baby gem, peas, bacon, wild garlic, £22
- Rum-poached pineapple, coconut sponge, rum jelly, coconut curd, £9
- Apple and beetroot - caramelised apples, beetroot cake, apple sorbet, beetroot marshmallow, beetroot caramel, £9
Bristol BS10 7TDwww.berwicklodge.co.uk/restaurant