Nine months after gaining his first Michelin star at the Goose in Oxfordshire, ex-Roux Scholar Matthew Tomkinson has moved south to take on a bigger challenge. Tom Vaughan reports
There's an ambition in Matthew Tomkinson that assures you he'll nail his latest challenge. Ask the Roux Scholarship judges, as he showed enough drive to win the prestigious award in 2005 or ask the Michelin inspectors, because he gained a star a year to the month after taking on his first head chef role at the Goose in Britwell Salome.
Now, after parting company with the Oxfordshire pub-turned-restaurant in search of something bigger, he's stepped into the role of head chef at the Montagu Arms hotel in Beaulieu, Hampshire, with plans to set up camp at the bucolic hotel. "This'll hopefully be me for the next 10 or so years," he says.
It'll certainly be his biggest challenge to date, but it's not hard to see the allure. His kitchen brigade has tripled from his time at the Goose to just over 10, and he oversees both restaurants: the informal Monty's and the fine-dining Terrace, as well as breakfast and room service.
As has been the case for the past few years, the hotel has retained Shaun Hill as a consultant, and Tomkinson says that such a presence can only help the restaurant.
The 50-seat Terrace is of a somewhat dated decor, and part of the journey will see all aspects of the place shaken up, just as Tomkinson has revitalised the menu, he says. A three-course meal has remained fixed at £42.
To make for an easy transition period, with new faces joining old staff and ex-Goose personnel in the kitchen, a few dishes from the previous menu have remained. The most notable of these is entitled "My potato omelette" served with roasted scallops and saffron aïoli. The omelette in question is a rolled-up cylinder of potato slices, browned off, topped with a free-range chicken egg yolk. It's a playful dish that marries the warmth of the scallop with a top-end take on comfort food.
Other starters, such as crisp croquette of free-range pig's trotter, smoked ham hock, Romsey tomato salad and caper purée, have come over from the Goose. The skin of the trotter is used to hold the ham hock, which, when set, is portioned, breadcrumbed and fried off. A rich, unctuous dish, it needs the sweet and sour of raisin and caper purée to cut through the meat.
At the very heart of it, Tomkinson's food is about letting the flavours and the produce speak for themselves. His parsley soup with buttered new potatoes and fromage blanc serves as a perfect example of this. It's no surprise, then, to see him feverishly plundering the rich supplies of the New Forest. Oysters should soon be from the seawater inlet of Beaulieu River, as should netted sea bass summer fruits - for desserts and jams - are from nearby Boyd Farm beef, pork and lamb are all in abundance in the area and Tomkinson has even found a local butter worthy of the kitchen. And work on a kitchen garden and beehives will soon be under way.
All of this flows into the make-up of the main courses. Grilled escalope of line-caught sea bass comes with sautéd Pink Fir potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke purée, braised Roscoff onions and smoked bacon sauce and slow-cooked New Forest fillet of beef with marinated salsify, sautéd local spinach, butternut squash purée and red wine sauce. Roast rump of Cornish lamb with aubergine cannelloni, caramelised shallots, buttered spinach and rosemary oil shows off the superlative technique praised by the Roux Scholar judges.
The desserts are completely different from the menu's previous incarnation. Warm savarin of Beaulieu raspberries with natural yogurt cream and mint syrup and pistachio sponge cake with strawberry purée, condensed milk ice-cream and roasted Beaulieu strawberries show off the end-of-season summer fruits, but it is the autumnal apple tarte tatin soon to hit the menu that is the real accomplishment. Served with a miniature Kilner jar of panna cotta, lemon curd and popping candy, it needs an apple sorbet to lighten it, says Tomkinson, before it is ready for the full à la carte.
The project isn't going to be an overnight success, but Tomkinson is ready for the battle - setting aside anything up to a decade to get the site where he wants it. Ten years may be a long time, but with Tomkinson a rising star in chef circles and the hotel keen to back him all the way, don't be surprised if the Montagu Arms sneaks on to the culinary map much sooner than that.
What's on the menu
- Rillettes of duck, sweet and sour cucumber, oyster tempura
- Confit fillet of red mullet, spiced lentil salad, cauliflower cream
- Tudge's pork three ways: slow-cooked loin, stuffed with cabbage, and glazed belly
- Roast fillets of local John Dory, braised Baby Gem lettuce, parsnip purée, roast chicken and tarragon jus
- Milk chocolate mousse with lavender ice-cream, burnt-orange syrup and cocoa crisp
- Caramelised lemon tart with blackcurrant sorbet
- Vanilla rice pudding tart with fig purée, candied pecans and maple syrup
Away from the stove
The Montagu Arms Hotel, Beaulieu, New Forest, Hampshire SO42 7ZL. Tel: 01590 612324