Tasting menus can be trite. But at Whatley Manor, Zoë Perrett discovers one that’s as exciting as it is exceptional
A single amuse-bouche into a 12-course tasting menu, I’ve already reached peak surprise – because lifelong cheese refuter LB is happily munching a friable spiced cracker topped not only with Exmoor caviar but with a veritable avalanche of parmesan.
We choose not to look at the proffered menu, feeling confident that The Dining Room’s recently received Michelin star means chef Niall Keating knows what he’s doing. We do choose, however, to accept the offer of a paired drinks flight.
The classy, understated room is low-lit enough to feel intimate; bright enough that you can appreciate what’s on the plate – not that you won’t get a thorough explanation of each dish from the young, friendly waiters who not only know their stuff but know how to build a bit of repartee with their customers.
We give a warm reception to both the hot and cold dishes that arrive next – nuggets of tempura eel with a smoky bacon-like character, a quivering egg custard topped with beautiful bubbles of salmon roe, chilled oysters leant umami by a sherry mignonette – and to our glasses of Petit Beaufort.
It’s not just wine, though – local honey beer partners with awe-inspiring sourdough loaves with a cracking crust and a croissant-like crumb. Slathered with a brown butter that calls to mind that delectable confection, the Werther’s Original, it’s one of the best things we’ve ever put in our mouths; well deserving of its status as a standalone course.
There’s a confident restraint to Niall’s cooking and plating. Nothing is over-egged – or over-any-other-ingrediented for that matter – every component of a dish is there to pull its weight. An unlikely-sounding triumvirate of cured mackerel with preserved raspberries and salted cucumber is knockout, as is squid ink tortellini filled with a pork gelee which melts into its bath of burned garlic vinaigrette.
Death Star-shaped vessels come apart to reveal a sushi rice risotto flavoured with a surf-n-turf combo of scallops and chorizo. Were I eating one course and not a dozen, I’d want a bucketload.
But the stomach space saved is well-afforded to a pretty plate of allium-glazed salmon confit and our final savoury course: a super-rare Anjou pigeon breast whose richness is countered by crisp cylinder of kohlrabi, dots of spicy date puree, and a medium-bodied Trentino.
Despite LB’s earlier breakthrough, we skip the optional cheese course. It proves a wise move because dessert is a three-course spread: a rosemary-scented white peach sorbet, a sort of deconstructed apple tart, and a sinfully sticky black sesame kouign amann. Coconut and fig maki rolls and a diminutive lemon meringue pie-let sweeten the ending still further.
Had I read the menu before we ate, I’d have anticipated a night of total food hell – it’s composed almost exclusively of ingredients I’d usually steer well clear of. But each has been prepared in a way that’s absolutely delighted me. Niall’s flavour combinations are distinct, diverse, and clever, clever, clever; the product of a chef with a magpie eye and a killer palate.
Leaving The Dining Room, we perform an elegant boozy-weave-meets-stuffed-waddle past a tableful of rock royalty – all of them clearly enjoying their own gastro-adventure every bit as much as we have our own.
Make it happen
Where: Whatley Manor Hotel & Spa, Easton Grey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0RB
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