André Garrett at Cliveden House.
Shall we go to Cliveden, I say to C, who is sitting on the chair in the kitchen, playing with his phone. I am sitting at the kitchen table, preparing a schedule of mortgage requirements for a new client. Unsurprisingly, the tedium is leading me to thoughts of escape. There are only so many times you can re-organise the kitchen cupboards.
When do you want to go, he says. Now, tonight, I say, let’s see if we can get a last minute deal. After he stops hyperventilating at the concept of doing something spur of the moment, I call them.
Ten minutes later I am packing my overnight bag and half an hour later we are off. I take my computer, knowing that all it will do is serve as a reminder of work not done.
I forget my computer when the car pulls into the drive. Nothing prepares you for the majestic approach to the house, a long, immaculate gravel road, at the end of which sits that imposing Italianate palazzo, set high on the banks of the Thames. Given that Cliveden was designed by Charles Barry, whose portfolio includes the Houses of Parliament and the house better known as Downton Abbey, the style could be described as maximalist.
We stay in one of the very basic rooms overlooking the spa area and I realise that I am looking at the Actual Pool. This is the pool whose very existence could be said to have brought down a government; the pool where Christine Keeler met John Profumo, sparking off a series of events which eventually led to the downfall of the Macmillan government. The house is no stranger to scandal; an earlier affair between the Second Earl of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury led to a duel between the Duke and her husband the Count, the latter dying of his wounds.
But we are here for the food as well as the history and after clocking the wonderful hot and cool borders, we go to the very grand dining room. Cliveden is a place which needs to be seen in the daytime so if you plan to visit when the evenings have drawn in, I would suggest lunch. Tip: ask for a window seat when booking. The view is breathtaking.
I feel that I should have dressed for dinner and C is wondering where his valet has got to and sadly I have left my tiara at home. It does not matter though as the room is formal but the atmosphere is not. Some people have dressed up and others are in jeans, some with a crease in them. The clientele is a mixed bag of special occasions and tourists. It is not as far as I can see, full of metropolitan types.
Twitter had given me away and as we sat down, a very welcome champagne cocktail appeared, served in a gold-rimmed glass, golden flakes floating on the surface of the liquid. So far so retro-glam.
We forego the tasting menu at £95 and choose instead the à la carte, included in the room price, priced at £70 for three courses. André Garrett, whose name is given to the restaurant was installed here in 2013, from Galvin at Windows where he had been since 2006, earning a Michelin star in 2010. He is described as “Executive Chef” so I’m not sure if he is cooking here all the time and I’m also not sure how often the menu changes, as it looked like the same menu described in the Spring newsletter was being served at the end of August. That isn’t unusual in hotel restaurants, but if you were staying for more than a few days it might start to get a little samey.
Some very good bread kicks things off, together with a light-as-a-feather pea mousse, and home-made crackers. Scallops come as three fat juicy bricks, pan-fried to crispness, with chicken wings, skin and girolles and a rich creamy sauce. Courgette flowers are swirled across the top and raw sliced courgettes scattered beneath the flowers. Chicken and scallops, who knew?
In my attempt to break the record for most turbot eaten by anyone ever in the month of August, I devour the gorgeous hunk of crisp-fried turbot “Grenobloise”, a sauce usually made with brown butter, capers and lemon. Here there were also cockles, and braised celery hearts, with microleaves and samphire scattered over the top. Not quite a classic Grenobloise, but rich and satisfying, every ingredient doing its bit but none upstaging the main event.
I’ve been told to have the cheese, so for once I do what I am told. A generous selection does not stop me from eyeing the very lovely raspberry soufflé being demolished on the other side of the table. I am permitted a teaspoon taster. But joy of joys there is a sweet trolley and I manage to create a little plateful of joy and chocolate. There has been so much food I am tempted to ask them to take me back to the room on one of those wicker luggage wagons they have outside the front entrance.
Passing sentence: I feel that the restaurant and indeed the hotel is in transition, from the tired offering under the von Essen banner to one which will offer a more relaxed, informal destination and which already has a very competent kitchen serving carefully-cooked food at realistic prices. There is a substantial refurbishment programme being undertaken and it’s clear that the hotel is being spruced up, which it needs in part, ready for a more discerning crowd. They might even manage to attract some of those metropolitan types, wanting a last minute escape from the drudgery of the mortgage checklist. There are some things that will never change, though; the magnificence of the buildings and the setting, the sense of history and the feeling that important things have happened here. Remember to bring your swimming kit.