Following an extensive and extremely informative morning tasting of J Dumangin Fils Champagnes, some colleagues and I entertained Gilles Dumangin to lunch at the beautiful Howard's House Hotel in the quaint Wiltshire village of Teffont Evias. Neither the village nor the hotel could have looked more stunning on such a glorious Spring day and I felt sure we would be in for a most enjoyable interlude.
Our attentive host, Noele Thompson, brought the menus to us in a comfortable ante-room and, while we made our choices from the short but wonderfully varied menu, we were delighted to hear another party of diners ordering a bottle of Gilles' Grand Réserve Champagne. Deciding, though, that we had had our fill of Champagne for one day, we ordered a bottle of 2007 Vouvray Sec from Domaine Champolou which pleased everyone and, with subtle honey nuances that made it seem almost off-dry, it was a sublime pairing with my starter of Twice-Baked Blue Cheese Soufflé with a walnut and poached pear salad. There was much praise from my colleagues for their starters too and these included a Leek Risotto topped with breast of local pigeon and Home Cured Salmon with a smoked salmon mousse.
The dining room at Howard's House is small and well-appointed and looks out onto the walled garden and terrace. Both made an idyllic picture in the sunshine and I could see why the hotel is a popular venue for weddings. Chef Nick Wentworth's ethos is to cook simply with the very best of predominantly local ingredients which are sourced from the hotel's own potager garden and from a stable of impressive local suppliers and we could certainly see this theme coming to life at our table.
Our main courses arrived with appropriate timing and were as exquisitely presented as the starters. I plumped for Braised Blade of Devon Ruby Red Beef with a root vegetable purée, spinach and confit shallot and I couldn't have been happier with my choice. The beef was cooked to perfection, the texture of the meat being almost like a Boeuf Bourgignon - meltingly tender and rich. My fellow diners reported a Fillet of Wild Halibut with fondant potato, baby asparagus and a brown shrimp dressing to be full of flavour and beautifully cooked and the Roasted Tenderloin and Confit Belly of Pork with a wholegrain mustard mash and calvados sauce both looked and smelled divine. A bottle of Côtes du Rhône Saint Gayan, from the superb 2007 vintage, accompanied our main course and it was extraordinarily good with the beef.
As decadent and delicious as the desserts sounded, and I was sorely tempted by Rhubarb Crumble with Dorset clotted cream, we all decided to go straight for coffee, choosing a mixture of double and single espressos. When they were brought to the table, each cup looked to have exactly the same measure but, by this time, no-one really cared and the coffee itself was as strong and flavourful as a good espresso should be.
All in all, this had been a most delicious and convivial lunch. In fact I can't remember one so good in a long time. I was keen to hear that a new dining terrace opens in the garden on 1st May and I have made a mental note to return on a sunny summer's day to partake of a relaxed al fresco lunch with friends.