Stovell’s (named after its chef-patron, Fernando Stovell) recently hosted Michelin inspectors with a view to earning a star. Sadly, said star was not forthcoming. While there is every reason why Stovell’s should enjoy starred status, I think I can diagnose why it has not quite reached its potential (more on this later).
It is as well that Stovell’s has a loyal following of locals and celebrities – helped no doubt by Fernando’s presence on TV shows such as BBC’s Saturday Kitchen – as the restaurant has no natural footfall. On the long and winding Windsor Road, the building is plonked among a few houses and a bit of a green. There is no nearby train station and so guests need to drive or be driven.
The building is very charming – probably 16th century or older given the ceiling height, exposed beams and inglenook fireplaces. The ceiling just before the dining room is so low that anyone over 5’7” need stoop considerably to pass the threshold.
Service at Stovell’s is exquisite. The maitre d’ – Adrian – came across from Coworth Park in Ascot (très haute cuisine, and starred) and is as attentive and on the ball as you could want any person in his role to be. At only 30 years old, he seems experienced beyond his years in matters human. He handed me a long and glorious wine list and announced a procession of quirky amuse-bouches. I do like free stuff – amuse-bouches, palate cleansers and so on – and the stars of this particular show were a dripping-like pork fat for smearing and a giant cracker. The cracker, in crunch and texture much like the Chinese prawn kind, was flavoured with onion and spices. The selection of amuse-bouches injected a sense of fun and a talking point for diners. I was enthused immediately.
I’ve moaned in other reviews about the poor treatment of wine – such as at Stecca which, although just opened at the time, lined up bottles of Brunello in the summer heat as a 24-hour off licence brandishes its own stock. It was a grape crime. At Stovell’s, wines are kept according to their qualities, always in refrigerated cabinets, thereby proofing the stock from the egregious temperatures we experienced this summer. A knockout, 2008 Pomerol (I fancied the partial exuberance – plus, 2008 is a value vintage) was a perfect 19 degrees and decanted lovingly into an attractive, crystal vessel. As is standard now, glassware was Riedel or Zalto – setting up for pleasurable drinking.
Before long, I was into my starter: “crustacean”. The dish is part-consommé and part-pasta, comprising osmanthus, chrysanthemum, Portland crab tortellini and oyster mushrooms, all in a broth of chicken stock, soya infusions and coconut water. While the course is not filling, it tastes good and is a further talking point with its floral ingredients. The pasta is minimal but the broth is interesting enough to feel satisfied with the eating.
The first possible reason why Stovell’s has no Michelin star is the main course of deconstructed beef Wellington. Actually, the beef fillet is very sound – I ate it myself. The garnish and accompaniments are also well-executed and packed with flavour. The difficulty is that the course is advertised as beef Wellington, and it just isn’t. The deconstructed nature of Stovell’s version is desperately easy to achieve: searing a steak in a pan and throwing it on some choux pastry. A Michelin inspector is open to surprise, shock, awe, suspense and many other emotions – but they are not up for being duped. A beef Wellington must be exactly that and not its considerably less-complicated substitute. All told, I did savour my main course and I could never tire of drowning fillet steak with silky, foresty Pomerol.
The second potential reason for the lack of star may be the dining room’s décor. It’s a very pleasant room, combining history and modernity. It’s fresh and air conditioned, and lit suitably. Simultaneously, an update to the room may be warranted – an overhaul that takes the restaurant from high-end brasserie to something superior. I have never visited a starred restaurant that is anything other than stylish or opulent. There is just a tiny hint of tiredness to Stovell’s that I think is holding it back.
Though becoming stuffed, I crowbarred in a dessert of carrot cake. Its design was unusual in being a little terracotta pot stuffed with whole baby carrots (made sweet somehow). The cake made for a faux-soil and was thick and satisfying. The dish is an accomplishment on the restaurant’s part and it far exceeded my expectations.
A relatively expensive bill came in – something I did expect given the wine spend. I would say Stovell’s is towards pricey, but without any unfairness. It can probably be regarded as a special occasion kind of venue and service/ambience of that level does generally beget a higher bill.
I can’t think of a higher quality restaurant within 10 miles of Guildford and, for that reason, south-easterners will not be disappointed. Those in London or the big cities may be too well-served on their doorstep to make the journey.
125 Windsor Road
by C Ley