Eating Out with Freddie
Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, Restaurant and Spa Evershot Dorchester DT2 0JR 01935 83424
Published in March ’07
We like re-visiting old haunts and think it important that our readers know how a restaurant is progressing, particularly one to which we have given a rave review. Two and a half years ago, we gave about our rave-iest review ever to Summer Lodge, which at that time had recently come into the ownership of Red Carnation Hotels, a collection of luxury properties in London, Geneva, Cape Town and Palm Beach. We approached our second visit with some trepidation: would it live up to its scintillating start, which had led Mrs Freddie to say, ‘The food here is on a different planet from anywhere else in Dorset’?
The answer can only be a resounding ‘yes’, since we once again experienced cooking to bear comparison with the best we have eaten anywhere, ever. Take, for example, Mrs Freddie’s main course of oven-roast loin of venison. So often, venison has been hung long enough to give it a strongly gamey flavour, then it is carved thick and served with a solid jus and vegetables to match. Not so this pink, tender, thinly sliced meat: the flavour was there but it was astonishingly delicate. The accompaniments of roast shallots and glazed endive gave a contrasting sweet sharpness which Mrs Freddie compared with the toning of colours in a painting.
Like the venison, my breast of pheasant had been only lightly hung and was so much better for it because its subtlety was allowed to come out. I’m always uncertain about whether pheasant is over-rated (and if it’s got those fiddly little bones in it, forget it), but I thought that if anyone could serve it to my liking Summer Lodge could, and I was not disappointed. It came with some very al dente green beans wrapped in bacon and with a delicious wild mushroom fricassée.
I had begun with a Summer Lodge salad, which combined the soft textures of Dorset Blue Vinny and the green leaves with the crunchiness of pumpkin seeds and crisped butternut squash shavings, the contrasting flavours being brought triumphantly together by a pumpkin vinaigrette. Mrs Freddie meanwhile enjoyed grilled red mullet tenderly placed on an escabèche – carrots, onions and, most importantly, coriander seeds, all poached in white wine and orange juice.
Throughout the evening, we were surprised by little extras ‘with the chef’s compliments': canapés of mozzarella with pesto, toasted cheese and cod beignets; an ‘amuse-bouche’ before our starters of an exquisite mini bacon and mushroom crèpe; and a pre-dessert of, believe it or not, crispy deep fried rice pudding with pear compôte. Apart from the fun of trying these things, they were just another example of the thought that had gone into the meal. Mrs Freddie put it more strongly: ‘It’s more than just thought, it’s imagination and real love for what they’re doing.’ Not a bad accolade.
The same attitude is represented by the staff. I wrote before that they seemed genuinely to enjoy our enjoyment and this has not changed. There are lots of them, and from many different countries (although Sam, the restaurant manager, has come all the way from Long Bredy), and every one with whom we came into contact was pleasant and professional to the highest degree. Mrs Freddie noticed how often they made eye contact with the diners they were serving. After the meal we talked to Steve Titman, the head chef, who has worked in Jersey, Germany and the USA and has been at Summer Lodge almost since Red Carnation took over; we asked him what was the secret of the place’s quality and the first thing he mentioned was the commitment of the staff. He probably put his finger on it.
Eric, the Summer Lodge sommelier, is something of a legend. Still a young man, he has been Sommelier of the Year and is about to represent his native France in the Sommelier World Championships. You can safely leave the choice of wine in his hands – he pointed us in the direction of a Château Meyney 1996, a Saint-Estèphe which was perfect with the game.
Summer Lodge doesn’t have a cheese board but a cheese trolley. It needs one because it offers no fewer than 25 cheeses; on the night we were there, every one came from the British Isles and most of them from the West Country. They ranged from a goat’s cheese called Ash Pyramid to the appropriately named Stinking Bishop. Mrs Freddie tried both of these, along with two or three others, and pronounced them all to be in their prime. Meanwhile, I had chosen a crème brûlée which not only put in the shade any other I have tasted but was accompanied by crème brûlée ice cream. I could take or leave the apple fondant which also came with it, but that ice cream will live in my dreams.
A very special place has to charge very special prices and Summer Lodge is no exception – which is why, for most of us, it will come into the reckoning only for very special occasions. A three-course dinner will produce a bill of around £50 a head without drinks.
The evening had begun with a gasp from Mrs Freddie as we turned into the drive and saw the trees that line it entwined with hundreds of scintillating lights. It ended with our discovery of a violet-scented grappa. To me, grappa has always been the roughest of spirits (my father-in-law was something of a connoisseur and swore he once had some which ate its way through the bottom of a paper cup) but this was a revelation in its smoothness and delicacy of flavour. Two such delightful sensuous experiences were appropriate book-ends to a memorable evening.