It’s blowing a Dartmoor hooley when we shuffle into the warmth of The Ilsington Country House Hotel, all damp around the edges and ready for something restorative. Families sit around playing board games and tucking into toasted tea cakes slathered in butter; the fire is roaring and a sense of cosy calm pervades. It’s a perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
But we’re after more than just a tea cake, so make our way to the hotel’s bistro, The Blue Tiger Inn. Launched in May 2010 to give guests a more informal alternative to the main restaurant, the Blue Tiger menu is certainly not short on choice, and everything is homemade and prepared fresh to order by the same kitchen team behind the two AA Rosette fine dining experience just along the corridor. Here as there, quality ingredients are king, with food miles kept to a minimum.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Blue Tiger’s menu is the chance to share: platters, fondues and pierrades feature as starters, mains and desserts, giving you lots of flavours to sample and a certain DIY pleasure in plunging raw ingredients into hot oil. We leap in straight away with a platter of home-smoked fish – the kitchen smoke all its own fish and meat, and cure salamis and other charcuterie on the premises – and we are not disappointed. The smokiness is subtle and well-judged, with the hot-smoked salmon particularly good, and a potted mackerel that’s beautifully balanced. A smoked aubergine and horseradish sauce is a tangy accent that offsets it all perfectly.
With an eye already on a shared dessert, we head for the Specials menu next, which injects a little of the restaurant’s fine dining aesthetic into proceedings – everything is beautifully presented, whichever menu you choose from – and gives me a good excuse not to hand over too much of my delicious rump of lamb. Perfectly pink and tender, and accompanied by a sweet butter bean pureé, it is very tasty; my companion is equally impressed by the Jerusalem artichoke sauce attendant to her pork tenderloin, which is complemented by a lip-smackingly salty ham hock.
We gather together again for the chocolate fondue, which arrives with poached pear, dried apricots, banana, almond biscotti, pistachio cake and shortbread for continued dipping delight. Great fun and hugely decadent – and made from high quality chocolate for maximum creaminess – it’s almost an indulgence too far… Never let it be said that I’m not prepared to go the extra mile for your benefit, Dear Reader.
With the Blue Tiger delivering tons of flavour and sharing fun from noon until 9pm, Monday to Sunday, and the main restaurant serving its award-winning fine dining menu from 6.30-9pm seven nights a week, plus Sunday lunch, there’s plenty to reward yourself with once you’ve stretched your legs to Hay Tor and back. We’ll be waiting by fire, tea cake at the ready.