Review, The Lakes: ‘Innovative, exciting, delicious food’
- Credit: SBN
It’s a fair while since I dined at Stoke by Nayland Hotel – for afternoon tea I think. And a lot has changed in a couple of years.
The team has certainly been busy during the lockdown months, transforming what were the Gainsborough and Garden function rooms into a brand-new location for The Lakes – the hotel’s fine dining offering.
In addition, former exec chef Alan Paton (well known on the foodie circuit) has returned to oversee catering operations alongside head chef Rob Wells – one of his former protegees, taken under Alan’s wing as a trainee teen chef many years ago.
In coming weeks the whole hotel is to be transformed into a winter wonderland, with the reception area being festooned with lights and twinkly festive decorations, so diners can make an entrance in style, before finding The Lakes via the warm, toasty Orchard Lounge with its lengthy cocktail list and crackling focal point applewood fire.
In its new location, with its own glass frontage, The Lakes is completely different. Set over two rooms and split levels, with enormous windows looking out to the lakes and undulating grounds (as well as a covered, heated terrace), the space is open yet intimate.
A muted, neutral palette and low lighting give a warm and inviting ambiance, which could otherwise be lost in such a vast space.
Chairs are squishy and comfortable enough for long, lingering suppers.
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And if you take a look at the wallpapered panels, you’ll spot a few playful marmosets hanging around – perhaps designer Rendall & Wright’s nod to the feasts created in The Lakes’ kitchen.
Here, Rob and Alan use local, regional, British, seasonal ingredients, and fruits from the family farm, to create dishes that have a foundation in classic cooking, but with twists and turns aplenty.
With a glass of fruity, light and slightly oaky Pinotage in hand, we begin our dining experience with the kitchen’s own focaccia bread (£3)– one classic, the other studded with chunks of black pudding – bliss. Focaccia outside of a decent bakery can be a let-down, often being underproved and dense. Not here. SBN’s version is puffy, filled with bubbles and generously slicked with a layer of salty olive oil. The black pudding is a stroke of genius and I secretly hope Alan will bring back his ‘signature’ combination of stilton and white chocolate (come on Alan, you know you want to).
It’s black pudding (£7.50) that I begin with as a first course. Made in-house. It lacks a little peppery fire for me (I like mine spicy) but is still a very commendable version, with delicate spicing and salting, a crisp exterior and yielding centre. A slice of it sits on the plate alongside a velvety celeriac puree and a citrus (lime I think) infused blackberry curd, which cuts through the richness of the pudding like magic. They should definitely sell this stuff in the onsite shop, Pippin.
Cured slivers of cod (£8.50) come served with a peppy, vibrant pineapple chilli sambal, that wakes up my mouth after the comfort of the preceding porcine dish.
And then there’s an absolute joy of a plate. The kind of thing I imagine Nigella feasting on at her fridge in the middle of the night – a wibbly, lightly crusted savoury bread and butter pudding (£7.50). It’s infused with Boxford Farm apple, and Fen Farm’s bloomy Baron Bigod brie. On top is a melting slice of Bigod, with the whole thing prevented from becoming too claggy thanks to a Boxford Farm pear chutney, and a dainty pear and tarragon salad. It is just gorgeous. At this point any hope of trying to stick someway to my pre-Christmas ‘be good’ diet is lost.
Things could only get better.
One of my dining partners tucks into what looks like an enormous vol au vent. It’s a chicken pie (£18). The chicken bound in a light Madeira and tarragon sauce before being tucked inside a puff pastry ‘tomb’ and served with al dente baby veg. This is delicious, but can’t hold a torch to what sits on my side of the table. A dish so blimmin’ good I’ve been harking on about it to anyone who’ll listen ever since. It hits every single note on the culinary hymn sheet. Sweet, salty, sharp, mellow, crispy, soft, light, dark.
Let me layer it up for you. At the bottom a savoury jus is spiked with pockets of spicy (addictive) green chilli ketchup. Next is a silky sweet potato puree. Over this, a slightly mulled, pickled warm red cabbage. The centrepiece is a golden edged rolled belly of tender pork, seasoned to perfection. It’s crowned with a warm stilton mousseline, puffy pork rind and (yes, there’s more) a breadcrumbed lobster nugget. At only £19, this is indulgence at what I think’s almost unbelievable value for money.
The kitchen’s talent continues, with a series of desserts that wouldn’t look out of place in a fancy French patisserie. Many of the puds make use of the farm’s fruit – at a glance, strawberries, cherries and apples.
There’s a choux bun filled with white chocolate whipped ganache and Boxford Farm strawberries (£7.50). A dark chocolate delice (£7.50) comprises of cocoa dense mousse, enveloped in a mirror glaze, with ripped pieces of milk chocolate sponge, a Caramac-tasting golden chocolate cream, and hazelnuts.
And Boxford Farm apples are given special attention (£7.50). Slices are lightly spiced and served with a savarin sponge, roasted apple chiboust (custard whipped with Italian meringue), shards of fresh apple and pops of honeycomb – which is, in my eyes, a welcome addition to any dessert. A really interesting use of a fruit that’s often relegated to life as a pie or crumble.
An impressive ensemble of plates. Mouthful after mouthful of delight. There’s little to fault here. In fact, I’ve booked a table for my daughter’s birthday – now that’s high praise indeed.
This menu should run into December, when you can also order from the festive menu, which is just under £30 for three courses. Festive afternoon teas are bookable now too.
Another one to add to your ‘must visit’ list.