SURROUNDED by a thousand acres of deer trodden forest, it is the wild and natural gardens of Gravetye Manor for which the hotel at West Hoathley is most famous.
In 1884, the estate was bought by renowned gardener William Robinson, who in his quest to challenge the conventions of British horticulture, created The English Natural Garden.
The grounds of Gravetye were his laboratory for botanical experiments which sought to break traditional Victorian conformities, that sought to impose order on wild spaces.
Instead, until his death in 1935, the estate was his exemplar, promoting his vision that flowers should be left to grow and plants blossom in their natural environment.
Today, the grounds and gardens of Gravetye remain one of the most impressive features of the extensively refurbished country house hotel near East Grinstead, West Sussex.
On the day the Restaurant Inspector visited in late October, the flower beds were alive with late blooms, whilst the autumnal arboreal back drop was ablaze with fiery shades of reds and oranges. However, following a three month refurbishment earlier this year, the interior of the Elizabethan Manor House is also alive with colour, having been lavished with exquisite floral fabrics, reflecting the outside, inside.
A cacophony of different materials and colours sit amongst an expanse of oak panelling, warmed by the many open log fires that comfort guests after walking the grounds.
The gardens also play a prominent role in the culinary delight offered by Gravetye’s restaurant. The menus created by executive chef Rupert Gleadow are described as ‘modern British’, and Rupert who honed his skills in France, Australia and Scotland before joining Gravetye four years ago, prides himself on using organic and locally sourced ingredients where possible.
And with the assistance of the estate’s new head gardener Tom Coward, formerly of Great Dixter, the majority of this produce is grown and harvested from Gravetye’s gardens.
During the summer more than 95 per cent of the fruit and vegetables used in the dishes on the menu were grown within the estate’s organic oval walled kitchen garden.
The restaurant’s Table D’Hote menu changes daily, reflecting the breadth and seasonality of the food available to the kitchen team, who are free to roam the garden, uprooting fresh vegetables, picking fruit, or cutting herbs as inspiration directs.
The A La Carte menu also features two changing specials each day, determined by what game or fish has been caught, or which home grown produce is most plentiful and flavoursome.
On the day we visited Gravetye, after enjoying the freshest and deliciously moreish fruit cocktail in the gardens whilst perusing the menu, we were led into the dining room to enjoy our selections from the A La Carte menu.
Classic in styling and refinement, the dining room is laid with crisp white linen offset by old oak panelling, interspersed by windows looking out onto the resplendent grounds outside.
We were seated at the far end of the room, warmed by a gently smouldering fireplace.
The service was attentive and thorough, as expected from a former Michelin starred classical French restaurant, looking to reclaim its glory, this time with its twist on modern British cuisine.
The first surprise was a pre-starter, a delight of duck set amidst a sweet potato foam, later followed by a pre-dessert, treats that all diners choosing from the A La Carte menu unexpectedly receive. Not only do these small dishes whet the pallet and excite the diner about what is to come, they also allow time for the kitchen to craft the main selections, something overtly apparent as modern dishes akin to art arrive at the table.
To start we chose Butter Poached West Coast Langoustine with langoustine tortellini, broccoli and caviar, all served on a black slate, and Sweet Cured and Poached Organic Salmon with textures of garden beetroot, and coriander yoghurt dressing.
The langoustine were plump and large, their freshness obvious in taste and texture. The accompanying tortellini contained more langoustine, perhaps an opportunity missed to balance the crayfish with a different taste seafood in the dish?
Regardless, the slate and plate were wiped clean with the warm bread rolls provided.
We chose Loin of Balcombe Venison with thyme boudin, turnip gratin, butternut squash and sloe gin sauce for the main course, along with Roast Breat of Gressingham Duck with chestnuts and sprouts, croustillant of the leg and fig chutney.
The venison was served just right, pink to the core. The duck, requested pink, was unfortunately a little over done, and the skin atop was not crispy, but soft and with a gelatinous fat layer underneath, in contrast to the way a duck breast is normally served, especially in France where they are far more common.
However, the shredded leg meat, combined with shallots and thyme in the croustillant, deep fried to create the crispy encasement was a true success and utterly delicious. The fig chutney provided a sweetness and acidity that worked well with the rest of the dish, and by finely chopping the sprouts, the often loathed vegetable would be inoffensive to even the most ardent sprout objector.
Gravetye is aiming to regain its lost Michellin star, and the chefs readily admit that in their quest for accolades, they are trying to push the boundaries as much as possible within their modern British remit.
One example of which being one of the most fabulous desserts the Restaurant Inspector has had the pleasure of experiencing – Tartare of Pineapple and Local Blackcurrant Jelly, with lychee sorbet, coconut foam and artisan biscuits.
The dish has a number of elements, most of which can be found lurking in a rounded glass, filled with the coconut foam.
Once inside a wealth of textures, flavours and temperatures awaits to the sheer oral entertainment of the diner. At the bottom is found rich and succulent pineapple, along with cool black currants, offset by warm and sweet gems of crumble that go crunch in the mouth.
Amidst this treasure trove of flavours, but still hidden by the luxuriance of the foam is a lychee sorbet, cool and cleansing to the pallet, each mouthful readying the tongue for the next mystery spoonful. And as if this in itself was not enough, the glass is adorned on top with a wafer thin artisan biscuit, and aside can be found caremelised pineapple bon bons, cubes of red currant jelly and small medallions of banana meringue – all utterly delectable!
If the Michelin inspector was as impressed as we were, a star could well be soon in the offing for Rupert Gleadow and his team of ten chefs.
The A La Carte menu offers a choice of six or seven dishes per course, available for lunch Monday to Saturday, and dinner every day.
The Table D’Hote fixed price menu changes each day, with two dishes per course. A twocourse lunch can be enjoyed from £22.50, three course from £27.50.
For more information or to make a reservation visit www.gravetyemanor.co.uk, or call the hotel reception on 01342 810 567.