Restaurant Review: Mallory Court
Harbury Lane, Leamington Spa, CV33 9QB. T: 01926 330214
Michelin-starred Mallory Court has perfected the art of fine cuisine at a relatively affordable price.
There are several quasi-scientific ways to calculate the health of the economy, such as reference to inflation rates, manufacturing output and the cost of conservatories in Sutton Coldfield.
They all have their uses for snap-shot assessments but they are prone, as are all statistical measures, to interpretation, spin, flannel and general waft.
For this very reason, I have devised the most sophisticated tool yet for analysing economic robustness, one which I think will impress both the BBC’s Robert Peston and City hedge-find managers.
I call it the Bolly Index (©McComb Inc).
The beauty is in the simplicity. The Bolly Index requires seeing how much, if any, Bollinger Champagne is drunk at English country house hotels – and, indeed, recording who is doing the drinking. If it’s the chef, we are all in trouble. If it’s a sheik, things are looking up.
By necessity, the Bolly Index assessor (that’s me) is required to check into an English country house hotel, in this case Mallory Court near Leamington Spa, take late-afternoon tea, dress for dinner and verifying the situation vis-à-vis quantitative culinary easing.
Last year when I visited Mallory Court, the jewel in the burgeoning hotel-group crown of tycoon Sir Peter Rigby, I didn’t hear a single cork popping. Worst still, from the luxury hotel market’s point of view, there was an absence of Americans.
How times have changed. Half-billionaire Sir Peter, a wizard at the controls of a helicopter, has bought himself an airport in the intervening period (just down the road at Coventry) and the Yanks are back in the bosom of top-dollar English hospitality.
As I perused the dinner menus on a Monday, traditionally one of the slackest services for restaurants, I was sandwiched, albeit very comfortably, in some period furniture, between two sets of American couples. But for the Luteyns-style architecture and my view of the oak-panelled dining room, I could have been in Miami. To my right, Hank and Betty did not betray a moment’s hesitation when the waiter arrived for aperitifs.
“Honey, woodya like a Balll-inger?” asked Hank.
“Oh, yes, honey,” said Betty. “Balll-inger.”
“Two Balll-ingers,” said Hank, addressing the waiter.
That’s two glasses, not two bottles, of the French fizz. Bottles would have been plain greedy. But £36 for two flutes of wine gives an indication of the renewal of the global economy. Bottoms up, Betty.
(I should point out that being a disciple of Britain’s new austerity I eschewed the lure of Champagne and nursed a modest pink gin.)
Sadly, I am unable to report how the second American couple fared in reference to the Bolly Index. This is because things on that side of the room were a bit bonkers. Now, I take food allergies seriously. I’ve got one, to oysters, and have second-hand experience of gluten intolerances.
But the second Yank’s wife seemed to be allergic to just about everything. She wanted an inventory of the kitchen and a full analysis of all product labelling. She queried the butter. I’m sure she said she couldn’t eat synthesized egg. Or maybe that’s what she could only eat. Is synthesized egg even a food, or is it a sound created on a synthesizer in molecular gastronomy establishments?
I was troubled but fortunately I was ushered to my table by restaurant manager, Dominique. He’s from Auch, in south west France, the hometown of D’Artagnan. Dominique has a musketeerish beard and a palate for a good wine list. Mallory Court sells some bottles from the nearby Welcombe Hills Vineyard. It’s a bold move by a top restaurant, to put the local English vino on an illustrious carte, alongside the Bordeaux and Burgundian big hitters. A 1987 Petrus was being nursed to room temperature by the leaded windows. Big bucks. But like they say, if you gotta ask ... I had half a bottle of Chablis.
Mallory Court, it should be said, provides the most consistent haute cuisine dining experience you will find in our patch of Middle England. It sets the benchmark. There are a (small) number of kitchens now operating at the same level but Mallory Court has been doing it for longer, bagging and maintaining one-star Michelin status for eight uninterrupted years. You may not find wilder leaps of the culinary imagination here – and some would say hurrah for that – but you will find impeccable produce, near faultless preparation and well-flavoured dishes.
The buck stops with head chef Simon Haigh, who won a star at Mallory in his first year and shows no signs of relinquishing his grasp.
Haigh is one of the most easy-going, self-effacing professionals who will find in the maelstrom of the ego-crashing fine dining industry. His kitchen appointments and methodology is based on a simple tenet: he’s so good, you’ve no idea he is not there.
I have eaten at Mallory Court three times and Haigh has never been on duty. Does he exist? I’m not sure, but I have interviewed him twice so I’m pretty sure he is out there somewhere. The fact is I have yet to eat food Haigh has actually prepared, tweaked and sauced, but I don’t need to because his influence is everywhere.
When I dined, Haigh’s right-hand man, Andrew Scott, was in charge and pulled off that rare feat: he and his brigade turned out three courses that I would have a devil of a time picking holes in. So I’m not really going to bother.
From the £57.50 à la carte (canapés, coffee and petits fours inclusive), I had the salad of Cornish blue lobster with peas, broad beans and asparagus. It attracts a £5 supplement but there is, believe me, an ample serving of sweet meat here, five good-sized spheres as well as claw meat, beautifully presented. The beans and the asparagus provide texture and English pluck; there is the sweetest of pea terrines. Crucially, the visual allure is matched by flavour.
Picking a main course was genuinely tricky – John Dory with dressed crab, lemon grass and ginger sauce; fillet of veal, roasted sweetbread and morel Madeira sauce; pork fillet, braised cheeks, “baby” apples were offer. But I dived in with the roasted escalope of cod. Despite being a staple of fish and chip shops, cod can be a swine to get right. It doesn’t like being handled and can mush up; when cooked, it can dry out quicker than
St Barts after rainfall, pearly flesh reduced to grey clag.
Not so on my plate. The tranche of fish, well crusted, was marooned on a fine pea risotto in a sea of chive cream sauce with a light garnish of greenery and delicate pencil-flares of tomato. The fish was spot on, creating the illusion that I was losing weight while eating it, such were the cleansing properties of the succulent meat.
Summer could, effectively, have ended at that point for me but the seasonal spirit was extended by a deconstructed peach Melba. Here, the artifice was complementary to the flavours, not smart-arsed faffing. Billed as “vanilla parfait, poached peach, raspberries and raspberry sorbet,” the pudding was delightful, packed with taste. The dessert station should be congratulated in getting so much natural raspberriness into the sorbet. A perfect parfait, too; a great lightness of touch.
Unusually for me, I was even able to nibble a few of the super petits fours.
It’s worth making a point about costs: £57.50 for dinner (£62.50 if you include the lobster supplement) may sound pricey, but you will be hard pushed (scraping-the-bottom-of-a-barrel pushed) to find this level of Michelin-starred cooking in France, Spain or Italy at this price. New York and Paris? Get outta town, buddy.
Gastro Brummies are relatively spoilt, the three course à la carte at Purnell’s, for example, working out at £42 (coffee and chocs excluded). The three-course à la carte at La Bécasse in Ludlow is £55 – still, I would suggest, good value.
Clearly, this isn’t everyday eating for most of us, but all of these restaurants provide more affordable menu options, typically at lunch time. Mallory Court does a three-course luncheon for £29.50 (or £24.50 for two courses). For £3.75, they will throw in coffee and petit fours – try getting that in Starbucks. There is also a £20 three-course set lunch. All this food is cooked by the same team that pimp and prime the high-end stuff. It will be very good.
There is, additionally, a £42 three-course dinner menu (again with coffee and munchies), with two options for each course.
So you can accuse Mallory Court, and the like, of being expensive and elitist. But you will be wrong. There is a price to pay for good food.
(For the record, 9 out of 10 in the Birmingham Post’s ratings guide signifies: “Awesome. Cooking of international class. Re-book now.”)