In America and Australasia upmarket restaurants in vineyards are common. In the UK, they're still a novelty - but chef-restaurateur Atul Kochhar is aiming to change that. Joanna Wood reports.
Atul Kochhar, the chef-proprietor of London's Michelin-starred Benares, opened his second restaurant, Vatika, just over a year ago - not in London, but at the Hampshire end of the South Downs, at Wickham Vineyard just outside Southampton.
In America and Australasia upmarket restaurants in vineyards are common, but they're a relatively new concept in the UK. Like its overseas counterparts, Vatika has style. It's in a low-slung modern barn but although the timbered roof structure is on view, there's nothing rustic about its 44-seat dining room. Chic circular chandeliers hang from the ceiling; there's crisp white linen on the tables, pale beige banquettes and an artful wall of wine bottles at one end. In other words, Vatika is modern, clean-lined and elegant.
The food is equally sophisticated. The work of head chef Jitin Joshi, who was Kochhar's right-hand man at Benares before opening Vatika for his boss, the dishes continue in the Anglo-Indian Benares tradition.
Influenced by the seasons (squash, wild mushrooms, pigeon and venison were recent early autumn options), the restaurant's menus are a joint effort by Joshi and Kochhar, although the latter's role is mainly an executive one. "I come here to eat," he jokes.
Ingredients are sourced within Hampshire if possible. For instance, lamb and beef are from Jody Scheckter's biodynamic farm at Laverstoke Park, vegetables are often supplied by a nearby farm shop and bread is made to the duo's recipes by the Naked Baker, just down the road at Botley.
There are five menu options: a full à la carte listing (£35/£40 for two/three courses), a set-price lunch menu (£19.50 or £24.50 for two/three courses) and three tasting menus (£50/£60 or £75 for five, seven or 10 courses). The latter have proved popular. "About 50% of our diners take a tasting menu," estimates Joshi.
A multi-course meal is certainly the best way to appreciate Joshi's deft cooking skills. As you'd expect, sophisticated spicing is at the heart of Vatika's cuisine, something that's apparent from the word go. Bread - onion seed baguette or a lightly spiced roll - comes with four mini test tubes of salt and spice mixes for seasoning a slab of unsalted butter: the options range from a soft pink salt to a mixed spice with a good kick of cumin and hints of fenugreek and chilli.
Little appetisers are sent out to get the tastebuds going. I had two crisp, skewered whitebait, with a small ball of black lentils and chilli and a dip of curried mayonnaise, the latter with just a hint of spice on the back of the throat. It's a clever way in to a deceptively simple first dish like juicy, caramelised pan-fried scallops accompanied by aubergine - a few mini slices of the veg, plus an aubergine purée - and a lime and chilli chutney. Joshi's skill provides enough aromatics to enhance rather than destroy the taste of the shellfish.
This respect for raw produce, together with an awareness of multi-layered ingredient textures, is obvious throughout Vatika's dishes. For example, wood pigeon, slow-cooked in a tandoor, has its gaminess offset by the earthiness of vanilla-and-five-spice-nuanced beetroot and has texture complexity in deep-fried beetroot crisps.
Always popular on the menu is a deep-flavoured, gelatinous slow-cooked shoulder of lamb, which comes with a little smokey, spiced lamb patty, some light potato and spinach dumplings (gnocchi to you and me), a smattering of couscous pearls and peas, and a dollop of raita flavoured with lavender; the latter sounds like a recipe for disaster but the lavender is so subtle it works.
Puds of course are not big in Indian cuisine, so these are generally Westernised, but often with a little exotic spicing. Naturally, this being the UK, a favourite with diners (generally, though not exclusively, in their 30s and 40s) is a very satisfying upmarket comfort dessert centred on a rich, dark chocolate cube, slightly warmed banana nuggets (bite-sized fritters) and crème brûlée spiced with cardamom.
As with all the dishes at Vatika, the desserts are beautifully presented - and come with a suggested wine match. Naturally, there are wine options from the vineyard, but Vatika scores big brownie points for expanding its diner's horizons and including interesting bins from around the globe - including India and Greece - as well as more obvious Old and New World producers.
With the UK's wine industry growing year-on-year, it's a sure bet we'll see more serious restaurants at vineyards in the future. But Kochhar is leading the way, here at Vatika.
Vatika, Wickham Vineyard, Shedfield, Southampton S032 2HL
Tel: 01329 830405
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Carpaccio of spiced venison, garlic pickle, sherry vinaigrette
- Potato cake, puffed rice salad, tamarind chutney
- Warm pork terrine, chilli scrambled egg, sour apple jelly
- Tandoori breast of partridge, leek and bacon korma, red onion jam
- Battered sea bass, pickled fennel, tandoori garlic sauce
- Pancetta-wrapped skate wing, red tapenade, mussels and peas
- Lemon curd, pomegranate jelly, liquorice meringue
- Apple panna cotta stack, basil sorbet, fritters
- Sticky toffee slice, tandoori date, milk kewra jam