Regular readers will know that I never turn down an invitation from Bath’s independent restaurant gurus, The Pig Guide – so when I received an email a few weeks ago inviting me to try the autumn tasting menu at Combe Grove Hotel, I said yes even though I knew nothing about it. It turns out that this hotel, although once a rather smart & fashionable place, has spent recent years being passed around various unimaginative hotel chains, which accounts for why I’d never heard much about it. Recently though, it was rescued by some new, independent owners – and they’ve got serious plans for restoring its former glory.
Combe Grove is perched on top of Bath’s Brassknocker Hill, with 70 acres of gardens and woodland spread about it. The views are quite literally breath-taking – strolling through reception, we were all irresistibly drawn to a wide doorway, flung open to let in the night air, beyond which the gardens tumbled vertiginously into the glorious Limpley Stoke valley. The new owners of Combe Grove pride themselves on an exceptional collection of artworks, which are displayed throughout the hotel, but I must confess that I completely lost my heart to this view, like a living, breathing landscape hung on the wall.
With such a setting, the interior of the hotel has a lot to live up to, but Managing Director Rebecca Whittington is throwing herself into the task with all sorts of beautiful touches, from hand-painted ceilings to antique fittings and fixtures. We were shown into a gorgeous private dining room set for fourteen, softly lit by the most stunning lamps which Rebecca told us formerly graced the iconic Liverpool Central Library, built in 1860 and now Grade II listed. The décor was rich, gloomy and deeply stylish, from the beautiful gold and turquoise wallpaper on one wall, to the table set with painted candlesticks and ochre glassware. Full of anticipation, we sat down for a six course menu from award-winning chef Leigh Evans, paired with cocktails from expert bartender Shane.
We started with a cured tuna tartar, served with watermelon, cucumber, radish and wasabi, and washed down with a frozen shot of Jinzu, a spectacular new gin created in Bristol. The flavours were fantastically fresh and zingy, perfect to wake up the tastebuds, and although I wouldn’t normally drink gin neat (honest) it worked perfectly with this dish. Our second course was wood pigeon (above), with black pudding, granola and orange – I must confess I wasn’t so sure about this one, maybe because of the granola, although I did enjoy the accompanying Black Manhattan, made with bourbon and orange to really bring out the orange in the dish.
The third course, though, was probably my favourite one of all – stone bass, served with a BBQ chicken leg, sweetcorn, polenta and leeks (below). To be completely honest, it’s probably not something I would have ordered, but I loved it – the combination of the firm, juicy bass with the chicken was fabulous. I even loved the sweetcorn, which is not my favourite thing at all – I do love it when a chef makes me enjoy something I thought I didn’t like! To pair with this one, we had possibly the most unusual cocktail of the evening – the pepino fumar, or smoking cucumber, made with tequila, smoked ancho chilli liqueur and cucumber. It had a hell of a kick but it really worked with the dish.
Our fourth course was a lovely wintry recipe – venison haunch, with red cabbage and an incredible smoked garlic dauphinoise which frankly, I could have eaten a whole plate of. To wash it down, we had another really unusual cocktail made with beetroot, which was really delicious – I’d definitely order it at the bar – but in my opinion a little too sweet for the meal.
For our first of two dessert courses, we were served a gloriously tart and tangy passion fruit brulée with mango salsa (below), and my favourite cocktail of the evening, a basil daiquiri. My normal policy for a cocktail flight like this is to only drink half of each (and if you’ve ever tried to live tweet a meal after six different cocktails, you’ll know why) but I couldn’t resist polishing this one off. Our final course was an iced parfait, with a blackberry & liquorice beignet and a tonka bean panna cotta, accompanied by cardamom lemonade. This was another really unusual idea that worked surprisingly well – I especially loved the beignet, and the parfait was gorgeously creamy.
Throughout the meal, I was so impressed by the creativity and originality displayed by both Leigh and Shane. There were some incredible flavour pairings and the presentation of all the dishes was stunning. I was also blown away by the setting, and chatting to Rebecca during the meal I was so excited by her plans for the future of the hotel. This is definitely one to watch.