At the Bybrook in the Manor House hotel in Castle Combe, executive chef Rob Potter has had big shoes to fill, but he's already picking up accolades. Tom Vaughan reports
At the Manor House, however, the answer wasn't far away - in fact, it was just four miles down the road. In February, Rob Potter - formerly head chef at the Park restaurant at nearby Lucknam Park - took up the reins as executive chef at the property's Bybrook restaurant. The proximity of the two employers, he admits, did present a few problems at first: "Obviously I've got big shoes to fill here at the Manor House and I want to put my own stamp on the menu. But then I didn't want to be cooking the same dishes as at Lucknam. It's a small industry and people would quickly talk."
The fact that he has managed, in just six weeks, to create a menu that is not only very individual from both his predecessor's and Lucknam's, but has very swiftly managed to pick up accolades, suggests the Manor House is on to a winner.
Potter's brief was to create an accessible fine-dining menu that makes optimum use of the garden. "It's got to be food that you read and want to eat - with ingredients that guests walk past in the grounds then see on the menu." Relaxing the offering was also important, with the hotel losing customers to the neighbouring pub midweek. So Potter's first change was to swap the lunch menu for a more informal brasserie offering, meaning the team could properly concentrate on a flawless evening service.
With three courses clocking in at £66, undoubtedly the highlight of Potter's modern European menu is a foie gras starter - a meaty slab of pan-fried lobe sat atop chicory marmalade (slow-cooked chicory with shallots, tarragon, white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar and sugar) and a burnt orange sauce, topped with crumbled gingerbread and radicchio. As Potter says, it is all "classical flavours" but in a lighter, modern setting, where the foie gras is complemented, not overpowered.
For mains, Old Spot pigs reared on the hotel grounds create the backbone of an excellent pork dish: brined then waterbathed belly is served with pink fillet atop a rich base of puréed black pudding, pork jus and spiced lentils. Accompanying it is a turnip fondant and sharp apple compote. "It starts off with the richness of the belly and finishes with the sharp bite and texture of the apple," explains Potter. Underpinning it all is the sheer quality of the pork and the rich depth Potter manages to give the jus.
To finish, another take on a classic - Amalfi lemon tart. The real star is the tart's wobble. "It's come out of the oven that afternoon. If you want to put a tart on the menu, you have to cook it daily," says Potter. The tart is topped with a thin layer of nougatine to give it a crunch, as well as macerated raspberries, small squares of raspberry jelly and basil leaves, and a raspberry sorbet.
Sautéed fois gras, chicory, gingerbread purée, toasted hazelnuts
There should also be an honourable mention for Potter's cheese course - a simple Parmesan sablé with walnuts, topped with whipped Colston Bassett mousse, pear chutney, candied walnuts and celery shoots. "The idea was that it would be a subtle taste of cheese - a nibble that packs a lot of flavour without overwhelming."
Despite only being six weeks in, Potter has already had a visit from the inspectors and successfully retained the restaurant's three AA rosettes, with the inspector commending the menu's consistency. "It gave me confidence and let me know that I'm on the right track," he says.
"It's a big job to come in to with accolades already in place. Obviously there's Michelin in September and there's no pressure on me from the hotel to keep it. It's not the be all and end all though - what's more important is the feedback we've been getting," he says, then pauses briefly. "But if we don't get it this year, then we've got to knuckle down and get it next year."
From the menu
- Flame-grilled mackerel, celeriac remoulade, pink grapefruit, smoked eel beignet
- Hand-dived scallops, apple, walnut, cauliflower, pickled shallot
- Line-caught Cornish John Dory, English peas, langoustine, sauté potato, langoustine vinaigrette
- Slow-cooked fillet of beef, truffle mashed potato, onion flavours, braised ox tongue, red wine jus
- Melting chocolate tian, malt ice-cream, aerated chocolate, pecans
- Burnt butter parfait, green apple sorbet, apple crisp
Á la carte menu: three courses for £66
Flame-grilled mackerel, celeriac remoulade, pink grapefruit and smoked eel beignet
The Manor House, Castle Combe, Chippenham SN14 7HR
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