Chagford in Dartmoor feels like a land far, far away – certainly from pollution, war and all life’s troubles. Nestled within acres of unspoilt woodland, the only upsets around Gidleigh Park are the occasional lawnmower breaking down; the only gunshots you will hear are for the game that will end up on the table.
After driving through the long, winding roads to Gidleigh Park, the frenetic madness of city life was quickly forgotten. I was becalmed. It was a summer’s day and, on arrival, the outdoor terrace naturally enticed: commanding views over the beautifully maintained gardens, a stream and the verdant fields beyond, this was a wonderful way to peruse the menu whilst sipping on a gin and tonic. Several gins are on offer at Gidleigh but I opted for something relatively local from the Salcombe distillery (OK, Salcombe isn’t exactly down the road from Chagford but it’s still Devon). The French sommelier, charming and never forceful, was on hand to advise on the wines (Palate’s tip: choose your wine either by the glass or a whole bottle at Gidleigh; alas, the mark-ups on the half bottles aren’t great value).
From 1994 to 2016, the restaurant was Michael Caines’ gaff and under his stewardship he earned the restaurant two Michelin stars. Last year, Michael Wignall, who had similarly earned two Michelin stars at the Latymer at Surrey’s Pennyhill Park hotel, took the reins. I was lucky enough to meet the man himself after a seemingly sweat-free service. He explained that he is trying to put a more modern twist on things than his predecessor. Wignall certainly has a hard act to follow but he is, in my view, succeeding. I had an utterly fabulous meal here, with absolutely flawless service.
Gidleigh Park is a gastronomic institution in the UK and remains in safe hands under Wignall’s direction
Let’s start with the setting. Oh my. Even if you are just coming to the restaurant, a walk around the hotel’s grounds and adjoining countryside is a must. The restaurant itself is in keeping with the subdued, quiet surroundings: matcha green chairs are striking without being garish; the tables are generously spaced apart and adorned with triple-ironed tablecloths; and the Tudor-style windows are open just ever-so-slightly to allow a gentle breeze to caress you whilst you dine. You could spend all day luxuriating in it.
As for the food, the modern twist Wignall mentioned is evident, but there’s still a little conservatism (definitely with a small ‘c’): the flavour combinations and techniques I have experienced in London’s top restaurants, but the ingredients are local and, above all, there’s nothing outlandish – no skidmarks, no ‘stories’ of how the dish got to you, and no science experiments. Just very well-executed, flavoursome food.
And you won’t leave the place feeling hungry. I lost count after the third amuse bouche (the ones I remember being (i) a fragrant Thai green soup, (ii) a tomato salad and (iii) a hollowed egg containing lobster, squid, cuttlefish, gnocchi and quail egg, which was a real delight and almost a whole lunch in itself). The trout in my starter tasted fresh and trouty and was accompanied by beetroot and carrot (a bit more vegetation than I would have liked). The main course of Dartmoor lamb was succulent and barely had to be chewed, with subtle anchovy acting as the seasoning and a gorgeous side bowl of potato, cheese and more lamb, which was like a gratin dauphinois turned up to 11. My only criticism, which I relayed to Michael in person, was that both the trout starter and the lamb main course needed a little more protein on the plate.
As for the aforementioned service, it was attentive but not fawning. Interactions with staff were at all times friendly and polite. Nothing was too much trouble, no-one was trying too hard to upsell and the delivery of each course was perfectly timed.
Is it the best value? On the basis of the locally-sourced ingredients alone I would hesitate but, look, you’re always going to pay a lot for cookery of this standard, and for a setting like this that needs to be maintained, with staff to house in the middle of nowhere. This is naturally going to push the prices up. Lunch is essentially £60 (sans wine) and wines by the glass around £10-15, which isn’t too crazy, though I did have a slight panic when I saw my G&T was £20!
At the risk of succumbing to a hyperbolic arrest, Gidleigh Park has to be one of the most magnificent places I’ve ever been. It is a gastronomic institution in the UK and remains in safe hands under Wignall’s direction. It isn’t cheap but neither is it stratospherically ridiculous, so treat yourself.
Gidleigh Park Hotel
by J A Smith