Chef Rob Palmer is taking gastronomic strides, mixing classical simplicity with modern refinement at Hampton Manor in Solihull. Richard McComb reports
Rob Palmer's career started just four miles from the kitchen he now commands at Hampton Manor near Solihull.
The culinary journey he has made dwarfs the geographic hop across the A45 from the National Exhibition Centre, where he cut his teeth at the Hilton Metropole.
Today, Palmer, 28, is head chef at the three-AA-rosette hotel, where his sole focus is elevating the impressive cooking standards at Peel's restaurant. There is no lunch service, so the dedicated brigade of six chefs can concentrate on dinner, served five nights a week, Tuesday to Saturday, to just 28 covers. There is also a private, oak-panelled tasting room for up to eight guests, which overlooks the kitchen.
When Peel's first opened in a separate dining room where weddings are now hosted, there were 70 covers plus a lunch service to contend with. These days, a second head chef and team takes care of the hotel's other food needs.
"It is a luxury and we try not to take it for granted," says Palmer, reflecting on his role as dinner service chef. "The idea is that if we have the same chef cooking the same food every night of the week, it allows us to be consistent."
I can think of very few restaurants in the region where such thought, effort and investment has been pumped into nurturing a gastronomic vision. Solihull has never been blessed with destination dining, but Palmer, backed by hugely supportive managing director James Hill, is creating chatter on the food guide grapevine.
When Palmer joined Hampton Manor in 2010, it was as junior sous chef to Martyn Pearn, who won Michelin stars at La Reserve, Bordeaux, and Buckland Manor in the Cotswolds. He also worked under Ryan Swift, now of Dormy House in Broadway, Worcestershire.
Palmer has cherry-picked from his predecessors, although it is a lighter take on Pearn's robust classicism that prevails. He was appointed head chef in October 2014.
There are three menus: à la carte (around £50 per person, with a choice of five starters and five mains); a four-course tasting menu (£55, wine flight £35); and a seven-course tasting menu (£75, wine £55).
Palmer is enthusiastic about British garden produce and not because it is on-trend for restaurants to grow their own veg. Hampton Manor has a wonderful walled garden that is being renovated, and a starter of beetroot is a nod to future ambitions. Candied beetroot, golden beetroot and young baby beetroot are salt-baked and served with a sweet and sour beetroot ketchup, Staffordshire Bosworth Ash goats' cheese ‘ice-cream' and sourdough (£10).
There are deft, light touches, such as a starter of spice-cured brill on the four-course menu. Indian spices (cumin, coriander seed and onion seed) complement the sweetness of the fish, which is finished with a curried mango dressing and buttermilk. The dish looks a picture on the bespoke pottery the team sources from Vineyard Pottery in Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, and Sytch Farm in Shrewsbury.
Beef is a mainstay. Palmer says: "It will never come off the menu. People seem to love beef around here." At the moment, breed selection has gone very high-end with a price to match. Strip loin of Wagyu beef, supplied by Aubrey Allen from Suffolk farmer Andrew Deacon, is paired with pungent truffle, cabbage and a terrine of Pink Fir potatoes on the à la carte (£34).The beef is cooked in a water bath at 58°C for 10 minutes before it is pan-fried. It is rich and packed with flavour.
Palmer's favourite dish is Muscovy duck with lavender (£26). He fell in love with the waterfowl and flower combo after eating lavender and honey duck at Eleven Madison Park in New York City. "Lavender is so potent. If you go over the top, it is like soap," he says. "Duck is a sweet, fatty meat, and the dish is all about balance. There are golden raisins, which are pickled to give acidity." The dish is a triumph.
As for the desserts, there are modern riffs on sweet favourites, like white chocolate ‘Aero' with cranberry, thyme and pistachio.
Palmer would be the first to admit he is a chef on an unfolding journey of culinary discovery. In the last year, he has gone on stages at two-star kitchens at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie and Restaurant Nathan Outlaw. A trip to Sweden involved a stop at the celebrated 12-cover Fäviken. The week before we meet, he has been for lunch with his boss at Claude Bosi's Hibiscus.
Palmer says: "Other than stages, I have never worked in a star kitchen. We have aspirations to do that here." The wait may not be that long.
From the menu
- Middle white pork and langoustine, leek, apple, ginger £15
- Caviar, egg yolk, Champagne cream, pickled shallots £15
- Muscovy duck, lavender, carrot, golden raisins £26
- Halibut, Jerusalem artichoke, sea lettuce, mussels £26
- Passion fruit, white chocolate ‘Aero', liquorice £10
- Orange, carrot, muscovado £10
Peel's, Hampton Manor, Shadowbrook Lane, Hampton-in-Arden, Solihull B92 0DQwww.peelsrestaurant.co.uk
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