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Review: Gidleigh Park

PUBLISHED: 11:01 18 August 2014 | UPDATED: 11:01 18 August 2014

Gidleigh Park regained its title as the UK's top restaurant in the 2014 Sunday Times listing

Gidleigh Park regained its title as the UK's top restaurant in the 2014 Sunday Times listing

Archant

With an accolade count of Olympian proportions and a reputation which goes far beyond Devon’s borders, Gidleigh Park is top of the crop when it comes to the promise of dining out delights. ANDY COOPER therefore headed there for dinner in the hope of a stellar experience…

The food at Gideligh Park is Modern BritishThe food at Gideligh Park is Modern British

“I hope it’s okay but Michael won’t be here,” said the charming lady as I confirmed our booking at Gidleigh Park. The ‘Michael’ in question was of course Caines of that variety, executive chef and factotum of this luxurious and discreet hotel standing proud at the end of a winding Dartmoor lane.

“Sure”, I replied, just briefly sensing, as I replaced the receiver, that being informed of the Great Man’s absence was a little like hearing that the part of King Lear would be played tonight by Anthony Hopkins and not Laurence Olivier. Good, but not great.

Hey ho. Off we set for Gidleigh, hoping for the best. How silly we were. Hope is not something you take with you to Gidleigh. Hope is for chancers. It’s expectation you arrive armed with. Expectation of a gastronomic experience like no other in this part of the world – or, indeed, I’d vouch in many other parts of the globe. And that expectation is met with elegance, charm and no little skill and enterprise and then served up to you on a silver salver. How lucky we are to have this rare repast on our doorsteps.

Is it me, or does the winding drive up to Gidleigh merely add to the expectation? Twist, turn, manoeuvre…by the time you have made your way up the lane to this Gothic-esque mansion in the hillside your senses are heightened and the expectation levels are rising. It’s almost as if the ten-minute traverse having left the relative comfort of the B-road from Chagford is there to remind you that ‘something special this way lies’.

Michael Caines biography

Is there a better definition of the maxim ‘local boy makes good’ than Michael Caines? Born in Exeter in 1969 and adopted into a large and loving family, he gained his passion for food from his mother. After attending Exeter Catering College - where in 1987, he won ‘Student of the Year’ - he then worked at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London before spending three influential years cooking with the man he calls his mentor, Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. Michael decamped to France where he further honed his skills under the under the guidance of superstar chefs including the late Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu and Joël Robuchon in Paris.

He returned to Britain in 1994 to take up the position of Head Chef at Gidleigh and was just two months into the job when he lost his right arm in a car accident. Remarkably, he was back in the kitchen part-time within two weeks, and full-time after just four.

Michael founded Michael Caines Restaurants in 1999 and the next year opened his first signature restaurant Michael Caines at The Royal Clarence in Exeter. In 2003, a chance meeting with Andrew Brownsword resulted in a dynamic partnership and the purchase of The Royal Clarence. From there Michael Caines Restaurants has opened in Chester, Manchester and Canterbury.

Of course, it was a fib to be told Michael was not in the evening we dined. Michael is EVERYWHERE. He doesn’t have to be within 100 miles of the premises – his influence is pronounced and profound and he is to be congratulated on working so hard to ensure the standards don’t falter just because he takes the occasional, much deserved break from the kitchen.

This place has Michael Caines in its DNA and his mere absence cannot shake that off. There’ll be no burning at this particular Rome when the Emperor is absent.

When it comes to service then a bugbear of mine, I am afraid, is when good, attentive service tips into obsequiousness. It’s a training/nous thing, I believe; knowing when to serve, when to ask, when to engage, when to return to table. With the team at Gidleigh the warmth and the attentiveness stay the right side of the line. AND they know their stuff: a casual chat with our waiter proved he knew not only the inside and out of Gidleigh’s menu…he had a pretty decent grasp of what was going down well at other establishments de jour as well.

I suppose this being a restaurant review I should talk about the food, shouldn’t I? An adjective alert here for those who try and avoid them…I am afraid I will have to lunge at the lexicon to describe the special nature of the Signature Menu I enjoyed. Nine courses without fault, complimentary, compelling and creative from start to finish. From the tartar of marinated yellow fin tuna with scallops and lime, Oscietra caviar, soused turnip and beetroot to the banana parfait with lime and butterscotch sauce, my tastebuds and gasps of wonder were vying with each other for prominence.

Of course, as I mentioned, Michael Caines never really leaves the place with his trademark across every dish…none more so than his signature Cornish salt cod with Beesands crab, samphire, chorizo and lemon purée: a medley of tastes and flavours which weren’t just made for each other – from now on they really shouldn’t exist on a plate in isolation.

Part of my reason for ringing ahead to Gidleigh was the GFP* and her avoidance of matters meat, fish and cheeses of the goat and feta variety but, naturalment, the Vegetarian Signature Menu was flourished before us, allowing her to ‘mmmmm’ and ‘yummm’ her way through such delights as garden beetroot with apple and caramelised walnuts and stir-fried shiitake mushrooms with a Thai purée, mange tout and fresh noodles with lemongrass foam.

All hail, therefore, St Michael of Gidleigh and all he is creating and crafting. Long may he maintain his starry-wayed procession across the accolades. We are a better, more beautiful and bountiful place for having this place of wonder in our midst.

* The Glamorous Fusspot accompanies me on all my reviews

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