If you look beyond the white tablecloths, chef Marcus McGuinness is staging a quiet revolution at this country house hotel in Hertfordshire. Neil Gerrard pays a visit
On the surface, you couldn't find many restaurants with a more traditional feel than Auberge du Lac in the grounds of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire.
It looks just like the conservative, well-heeled, Home Counties clientele who dine there would expect. And yet look a little closer and there are modern touches to Auberge du Lac, not least in its refined, seasonal menu, devised by head chef Marcus McGuinness.
McGuinness has enjoyed a stellar career. He cut his teeth working for Marcus Ashenford at the Michelin-starred 5 North Street near Cheltenham,
followed by David Everitt-Matthias at Le Champignon Sauvage, several years under Claude Bosi - including five years as head chef of Hibiscus in London - and latterly a role at Bosi's pub, the Malt House in Fulham.
Having joined the restaurant in October 2013, supported by culinary consultant Anthony Demetre, McGuinness now has free rein to develop the menu as he sees fit, following Demetre's departure in summer last year McGuinness is not, by his own admission, a particularly patient chef. When The Caterer visits in early March, he already has spring vegetables on the menu, in dishes such as the roast Herdwick lamb, pomme boulangère,
broad beans, lime and mint (part of the £60, three-course, Á la carte menu).
"I do feel a bit guilty sometimes because we are working with Italian produce," he says. "I would love to work with English all the time, but it is that time of year when there is not much. But I try to be as seasonal as possible."
That impatience extends to his desire to innovate and evolve dishes. At the moment he is playing around with swim bladders from fish. "I first came across them in Hong Kong a couple of years ago. We dry them and deepfry them and they puff up like a Quaver. They have little flavour, but the texture is immense. I am thinking of doing them as a canapé with tartar sauce. I love stuff like that - offcuts and so on. But it is hard to integrate it because it is not always the clientele's cup of tea," he says.
What the clientele tends to like is prime cuts, especially on the Á la carte menu. But that doesn't mean McGuinness can't be a little sneaky about getting his diners to enjoy something they may not have already discovered.
He uses all of an animal wherever possible, especially on the lunch menu, as can be seen with the squab pigeon, crispy leg, pigeon sausage, spring vegetables and sauce aigre doux, which can be found on both the Á la carte and the six- and eight-course tasting menus (£69 and £79 respectively).
McGuinness hangs the pigeon, which he gets from Fine France in New Covent Garden, for a week with the head on and guts in to give it an extra hit of flavour.
There's also a certain amount of sleight of hand when it comes to the way in which dishes are described. A "blue cheese salad" on the lunch menu is not quite what it seems: "It's actually a blue cheese ice-cream," McGuinness explains. "But if I put 'blue cheese ice-cream' on the menu, people would run a mile."
Best-sellers from the £60 Á la carte menu include the Devon crab salad with mango, coriander and chilli, and the 42-day-aged fillet of Cumbrian beef (from Lake District Farmers) with crushed Jersey Royals, white asparagus, Cevenne onions and wasabi.
But the customers have surprised McGuinness with one of their other favourites - the beautiful, unusual spring dish of wild garlic and prawn dumpling with dried capers, coconut and prawn consommé and coconut oil. Having blitzed together prawns, wild garlic and coconut with methylcellulose, McGuinness then poaches the dumplings until they set. The dish is influenced by both Everitt-Matthias, from whom McGuinness
says he was inspired to take the wild garlic and coconut flavour combination, and Bosi, who recently made gnocchi with onion and cinnamon
using a similar method.
McGuinness' approach certainly seems to be working - a Tuesday lunchtime where many a restaurant this far out of London might be struggling, sees 25 diners, many celebrating birthdays or other special occasions.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays see 50 for lunch and another 50 for dinner. The restaurant certainly has the space for it, with a capacity of 70 downstairs and another four private rooms, plus an outdoor terrace that can seat 50 in good weather. He hopes to beef up his brigade too. Currently only five strong (including McGuinness), he hopes for another three chefs before the summer.
"It is just a case of moving the food forward. I do get bored relatively easily and generally I don't stay happy with things for long," he says.
"If we were full lunch and dinner five days a week, that would be great."
From the menu
- Roast Scottish scallop, mandarin, dill and bianchetta truffle
- Salad of Up-Hill ham, warm 'pig cake', apple, radish and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar
- Roast brill, artichokes barigoule, gnocchi, English mustard and lovage
- Sea bream stuffed with hazelnut and three-year-old Parmesan, Seville orange and confit asparagus
- Original Beans chocolate marjolaine with praline ice-cream
- Seville orange meringue tart with bitter orange ice-cream
Auberge du Lac, Brocket Hall, Welwyn, Hertfordshire AL8 7XG