Belinda Dillon discovers some culinary artistry to excite the palate
Tucked into a sheltered valley on the northern edge of Dartmoor in Lewdown, Lewtrenchard Manor is suffused with stories. Although first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, the house we see today is the result of rebuilding in the 19th century by Sabine Baring-Gould, whose family had been in residence since 1626. From the glorious gardens to the ornate plasterwork, carvings and portraits that fill the rooms and hallways, every detail speaks volumes about the personal narratives that have thrived here over the years.
The latest chapter in the story is a reprisal of sorts. The current owner-managers, Sue and James Murray, ran Lewtrenchard until 2003, when they sold the hotel to the Von Essen group. When Von Essen went into administration in 2011, the Murrays bought back the lease, with their son Duncan joining them to run what is once again a friendly hotel that combines a warm welcome with excellent, service.
After a drink and some appetite-whetting canapés in the cosy bar, we head into the dining room. In such historically resonant surroundings – the oak-panelled walls are festooned with centuries' worth of oil paintings, stained-glass sections of the mullioned windows burst with heraldic colour – I am expecting the food to continue in that vein. And yet every plate shatters my preconceptions in its presentation and execution, for Head Chef Matthew Peryer's menu is a modernist masterpiece.
My beetroot and goats' cheese starter resembles a Jean Miro painting in its construction and colour palette, and the artistry isn't confined to the presentation: the cheese melts on the tongue and is beautifully offset by the beetroot in its different preparations, from pickled crimson cubes to gems of golden purée. My partner's roasted crab and fish dish is a kind of 'deconstructed bouillabaisse', topped with a lobster foam that pulls it all together with salty relish. It's an impressive beginning.
My duck main is delicately honeyed and five-spiced, the roasted peaches echoing traditional flavour combinations; again, the volume is in the flavours rather than the portions, and all is well balanced. My partner's assiette of lamb showcases several cuts, each pinked to perfection and silken in texture; it's an umami feast, tiny broad beans bright green next to the gesture of dauphinoise purée – your carb-light diet is in safe hands here.
The pre-dessert features something quite extraordinary – tarragon dust over yoghurt sorbet – its apparent ephemerality on the tongue in immediate counterpoint to its intensity on the taste buds. It's satisfying to experience the mystery of culinary creation when it is backed up by exceptional talent and skill. The actual desserts – a yoghurt parfait accompanied by basil-tempered raspberries, and a wonderfully moist pistachio cake with chocolate mousse and ice cream – are decadent without being overpowering, and all delicious.
Matthew has only been at Lewtrenchard for two months – directly from the Michelin-starred restaurant at The Atlantic Hotel in Jersey – and I doubt it'll be too long before Michelin come calling here. I'd book a table while you still can.
Published 3 June 2013
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