Claudia Blake visits
The Coach House at Middleton Lodge
It’s a magical experience arriving at The Coach House on a dark, chilly night. The car park is set amongst lofty pines, their tall trunks soaring up into the gloom. Paths studded with lights gently guide you through the darkness to an elegant courtyard garden where flaming braziers crackle amidst the shrubs and parterres. The restaurant inside is equally impressive: an airy rectangular space whose stone flags, Romanesque arches, distressed plasterwork and exposed roof beams give it something of the atmosphere of an ancient chapel. It has evidently been kitted out by someone with a keen eye on the latest trends. Muted fabrics, spare industrial light fittings and the obligatory ancient typewriter (why are old typewriters suddenly so popular with interior designers?) bring a dash of urban style to this cavernous Georgian outbuilding. Maybe it’s in an attempt to be hip, or possibly to make the prices seem more modest, but whoever devised the menu decided to do so without using either pound signs or pence.
Hence the starters we chose were listed as “cured monkfish, curry granola, sultanas, coriander – 10” and “mushroom veloute, goats curd, truffle popcorn – 6”. So far so good, but the system starts creaking at the seams when you find drinks on offer for sums like “4¾” and “68⁄10”. Presumably that’s £4.75 and £6.80 to you and me. Wouldn’t it be simpler to tell it straight?
The menu may have been awkwardly set out, but our monkfish starter was presented immaculately. Confidently laid out on a large, stylish plate, this improbable fusion of American breakfast cereal and Asian spicing proved to be a genuine delight. Yes, the fish struggled to compete with the muscular curry flavours, but its role was more as a texture than a taste, and in this capacity it made a perfect foil for the piquant heat and enticing crispness of the granola.
Good though it was, the velouté was better still – one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year, in fact. Strictly speaking a velouté is a white sauce made with stock, but nowadays the term has been stretched to cover rich, velvety soups cooked using the same techniques. ‘Velouté’ is the French for ‘velvety’, and this one was the last word in silky smoothness. Its intense mushroom flavour shaded gently into the creamy-rich tones of the goat’s cheese, with the chewy crunch of the truffle popcorn adding fun and finesse. I assume Chef sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a recipe of such sublime quality.
Just one gripe: to enjoy the privilege of eating bread and butter with our soup it seems we should have shelled out an additional ‘1½’ to order some, because it came without. I don’t believe I’ve ever been served soup without bread before, and at the price point at which The Coach House operates – in excess of a hundred quid for a meal for two with drinks and coffees – bread generally comes as a matter of course. Most often a choice of several kinds, in fact, plus an amuse-bouche or two, and maybe even a sorbet between courses. Bread costs pennies; to be grudging with it seems to me to be a PR faux pas.
Anyway, on to the first of our mains. This was a judiciously cooked saddle of venison, and another triumph of cunning cheffing. Deep, rich, gamey flavours, meltingly soft meat, and a touch of caramelisation on the outside… spot on! The saddle was served with a luscious ragu of shoulder meat wrapped in a vine leaf, along with puréed squash, crisp curls of kale and a tiny satellite plate of super-creamy mash for extra jollity. Lots of variety on the plate, both in terms of taste and texture, with the whole thing adding up to a thoroughly decent dish.
We were less impressed with our other main, roast halibut with hot tartare sauce. Sadly the fish had spent slightly too long in the oven and become dry. The tartare sauce lacked the sharp kick that capers normally deliver, settling instead for middle-of-the-road creaminess. What’s more, apart from a scrape of puréed potato there was nothing else on the plate, which sorely needed something crunchy or sharp to give the dish range and subtlety. Yes, we could have ordered a salad or extra veg for an additional ‘3½’, but for the not insubstantial price of £22 I would expect something that felt more like a complete, well-thought-out plateful. Desserts are where chefs get the chance to really shine, and our chocolate mousse bar with tiramisu ice cream certainly set the bar high, in terms of both presentation and taste.
Chocolately puds seldom come richer or more intense than this one, and the cool, coffee hints of the tiramisu ice cream perfectly balanced the dark moodiness of the mousse. The flavours and textures of our other dessert – cider-poached apple with a salty brown butter ice cream and a dusting of crunchy honeycomb – were also bang on, but the presentation needed rethinking. Essentially everything was simply piled into a bowl, albeit a very attractive one. The chunks of apple were slightly too big to easily extract from the depths of the bowl, or eat whole, and yet too firm to easily divide with a spoon. This was a dish crying out to be served on a plate. So where does that leave us? Some splendidly inventive cooking, albeit with a couple of glitches. Top marks for the ambience and décor, and also for the charming and highly professional front-of-house staff. Dining at The Coach House is a memorable and enjoyable experience, and it’s clearly a place with high aspirations. I can’t help feeling, though, that a few tweaks are needed before those aspirations can be fully realised.
For further information about The Coach House visit middletonlodge.co.uk or call 01325 377977.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Detailed, adventurous, modern British cooking.
Bang-on-trend city chic, tucked away on a country estate.
Polished, knowledgeable, personable.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Three courses, including a side order of fries, cost us a shade over £42 each, excluding drinks.
DOWN THE HATCH
Decrypt the menu and you’ll discover that wines by the glass start at £4.40 for a 125ml glass, or £5.60 for a 175ml one.
The entrance to Middleton Lodge is on the east side of Kneeton Lane which runs north from Middleton Tyas, a stone’s throw from Scotch Corner, to Barton.