Exciting U.K. properties combine fine dining and luxurious lodging
The concept of the "city or country house with fine dining" or "a fine-dining restaurant with rooms" is not entirely new.
But the British are rapidly expanding this niche, updating it while adding considerable flair. Travelers and gourmets alike flock to compelling settings -- in cities, towns, villages or the countryside -- to find lavish hospitality, memorable experiences and fabulous flavors. Here are some destinations to target.
Stylish in Bath
Bath, a spa playground since Roman times and a designated World Heritage Site, offers unforgettable pleasures. In the 18th century, those pleasures focused on gambling, gamboling and assorted sinful pursuits. The Royal Court frequently sojourned here when escaping London. Today, the elegant city, while redolent of the aristocratic lifestyle of Georgian England, is also a vibrant contemporary center.
Admire splendid architecture, including the distinctive "crescents" -- sweeping curves of honey-colored stone townhouse facades. Stroll the beautiful parks, gardens and squares. Visit shops, museums, the Royal Theater, Bath Abbey and the amazing Roman Baths, lost for 18 centuries and now a preserved star attraction.
When it comes to subtle luxe, The Royal Crescent Hotel has no peer. Occupying the two center townhouses of this epitome of Regency architecture, the hotel announces its presence with only discreet brass lettering on planters at either side of the door. Hand your car keys to 18-year veteran doorman Mark Hanks, step inside and feel transported to an earlier, more genteel era.
Period furnishings lavishly decorate each room and suite. Behind the Crescent's curved terrace, beautiful gardens lead to former outbuildings now converted to sumptuous quarters. Johnny Depp and his family stayed in the Garden Villa, once a storeroom. The complex also houses a fine-dining restaurant, Pimpernel's, and a pampering spa.
At Pimpernel's, chef Steven Blake serves sophisticated cuisine with Mediterranean and Asian references: Thai rabbit salad; a duo of tuna (one layered with wontons, dressed by wasabi and lime juice, the other accompanied by a spicy Bloody Mary sorbet and garlic emulsion). There's wit on the menu: "Fish and Chips" comes wrapped in the particular pink newsprint of the Financial Times. Top to bottom, service is superior.
Across Victoria Park, The Bath Priory Hotel & Restaurant provides another blissful indulgence. Built in 1835 as a private house, it functioned variously as a school and a sequence of hotels until businessman/hotelier Andrew Brownsword and his wife, Christina, purchased and lovingly restored it.
Behind high walls, four acres of magnificent gardens, including a croquet lawn and secluded swimming pool, surround the stately home. A new wing houses an exclusive spa. Original fine art and antiques fill the comfortable lounges and guestrooms. Most notably, a large Victorian kitchen garden supplies organic herbs and produce to the Priory's Michelin-starred restaurant.
Reveling in fresh, home-grown ingredients, head chef Chris Horridge works closely with the estate's gardener and also forages the countryside for wild edibles. Next year, he'll be tapping sap from sycamore trees, European cousins of the maple, to make syrup for foie gras.
Science has a place in this chef's kitchen -- a microscope measures air in souffles. But Horridge remains focused on voluptuous flavor. A study in scallops presents the mollusk three ways: roasted; lime marinated; and baked "en coquille." The shell, opened at table, adds delicious drama to the dish. Pan-fried English red mullet comes with a tangle of razor clams, coriander and squid-ink risotto. Pigeon, roasted with jabugo ham, nestles on the plate next to pearl barley, a wink to the bird's grain diet.
The bucolic county of Devon charms with fertile valleys and gentle hillsides that give way to the wild upland of Dartmoor, a national park.
One grand country house, Gidleigh Park, is undergoing major renovation. But it reopens, with polished amenities, in June. Gidleigh's Michelin two-star kitchen is the home base of celebrated chef Michael Caines.
For an exceptional escape, venture to Percy's Country Hotel & Restaurant. Along a country road, just four miles from the Cornwall border, this tranquil property boasts a 130-acre organically managed farm.
Engaging owners Tina and Tony Bricknell-Webb restored the historic Coombeshead Estate, including its 16th-century house and granary. In developing the property, they''ve integrated smart, modern comforts with the best of the rustic. Their ambitious business plan melds deluxe accommodations, fine dining, outdoor recreation, race-horse breeding and impeccable husbandry in a lushly beautiful setting.
Accomplished chef Tina crafts contemporary country cuisine using only the best seasonal ingredients -- mostly from the estate. Heritage Large Black pigs, Jacob's sheep, pedigreed geese, ducks and chickens roam the property. Venison, small game and wild mushrooms come from the recently planted 60-acre forest. Cheese and beef are locally sourced. Herbs, vegetables and fruit flourish in the kitchen gardens. Tony, licensed to bid at the Looe Fish Auction, brings home fresh seafood.
Dining here is dreamy. Just-laid eggs, and house-made ham, bacon and sausage grace the breakfast table. Dinner may include an appetizer of seared Cornish squid and scallops; a lightly dressed salad of freshly plucked greens; and loin of lamb with rosemary jus. You may want to stay forever.
Elsewhere in Devon: Exeter, a city since Roman times, combines historic charm and modern urban living. At the city's center, medieval buildings enclose the green oasis of Cathedral Yard with its fine gothic cathedral. Facing the Yard is ABode Exeter, the relaunched Royal Clarence hotel, site of a hostelry since 1169.
ABode Exeter debuts a collection of boutique hotels being developed by hotelier Andrew Brownsword and chef Michael Caines. The concept combines quality, good value, contemporary design and discerning lifestyle. Each hotel will be unique, though all will share such amenities as heavenly Vi-Spring beds, comprehensive entertainment systems and complimentary broadband.
Rooms are rated Comfortable, Desirable, Enviable and Fabulous. At Exeter, one "Enviable" brings a stunning view onto Cathedral Yard, low lighting, romantic candles and a claw-foot bathtub--in the bedroom. The sleek shower tucks away in the bathroom with the toilet and heated towel bars.
Among dining options, there's MC restaurant, where head chef Simon Dow executes a sophisticated menu, including some of Michael Caines' classic dishes. To ensure total comfort, refer your every whim to "Oscar," the chain's term for concierge, a friendly chap eager to assist.
Winston Churchill was born and raised in his family's ancestral home of Blenheim Palace, in historic Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Perhaps Winnie dined at The Feathers, an old inn in a row of seven 17th-century townhouses on the town's main street.
Quaint and quintessentially British, The Feathers experience encompasses winding staircases, labyrinthine corridors, log fireplaces, antiques and lots of local color. Roost here to visit Oxford University, Blenheim Palace and its glorious gardens, the charming Cotswolds to the west and the Chilterns to the east. Think picture-postcard England. In the kitchen, head chef Simon Garbutt updates such English staples as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The well-aged beef sirloin, hailing from specialty breeder Mac Duff in Scotland, is oven-roasted to rare, fork-tender and wine-sauced. Other show stoppers: Cornish halibut, with cabbage, beer and bacon; and roast rump of heather-fed Welsh lamb, with salsa verde.
Occupying a 15th-century manor house in nearby Great Milton, the much-lauded Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons is generally regarded as the best restaurant/country house hotel in England. Here, legendary chef Raymond Blanc pursues a vision of perfection and excellence in food, comfort and service. He's admirably maintained a Michelin two-star rating for nearly a quarter century.
Opened in 1984 and recently renovated, Le Manoir projects a glamorous, contemporary attitude. Extensive grounds include delicious vistas, a water garden, a Japanese tea garden and a two-acre kitchen garden. The property also houses two cooking schools -- one for adults, one for children. But the jewel in the crown is certainly the transcendent restaurant. Inspiration and innovation spark its modern French menu.
Born in Besancon, France, in 1949, Blanc arrived in England in 1972 to work as a waiter. When the restaurant's chef became ill, he took over the kitchen and two years later scored a Michelin star. While he says he never set out to repair what was then a miserable British food scene, he has, in fact, dramatically elevated the country's dining to world-class status. A score of today's acclaimed U.K. chefs owe their inspiration, training and mentorship to this amazing man.
A promoter of the organic food movement for more than 20 years, Blanc was also the first chef to attend the International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy at Erice, Sicily. In 2004, he hosted The American Food Revolution, showcasing American culinary excellence. Always forward-thinking, this energetic chef works on the frontiers of food and culture. Le Manoir remains ever evolving, fresh and exciting.
The picturesque beauty of the Cotswolds -- a range of rolling hills between Oxford and Bath -- exemplifies England's green and pleasant land. Pretty villages and small towns, with evocative names such as Stow-in-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water and Moreton-in- Marsh, attract busloads of tourists. To avoid the swarms, stay in local establishments: When the buses roll off, you'll have the charm to yourself.
Secluded grounds surround Lords of the Manor, outside the tiny village of Upper Slaughter. This 1649-built former parsonage, expanded by incorporating several adjacent houses, resonates with interesting history -- especially that of the Witts family, rectors of the parish. It's still privately owned. Each guest room has an individual character and a complimentary carafe of sherry. Expect to get lost meandering the serpentine hallways, but show up for civilized before-dinner cocktails in the lounge -- with fireplaces blazing in winter and French doors thrown open to gentle breezes in summer.
Head chef Les Rennie and chef de cuisine Andrew Bennett execute traditional food with modern twists: roast Cornish monkfish with serrano ham and pea shoots; foie gras, with tamarind ice cream and aged balsamic. Gracious service suits the refined ambiance.
The Manor House Hotel, in Moreton-in-Marsh, is the dining flagship of seven properties owned by Michael and Pamela Horton, operating as Cotswold Inns. The 16th-century inn, with arched leaded windows overlooking traditional English gardens, respects its heritage but adds high-style contemporary counterpoints. There's a recently added chic restaurant, Mulberry, named to honor a 300-year-old tree still bearing fruit for the kitchen. General manager Tony Hooton and chef Andy Troughton are young, powering up for success and eager to please. Troughton's ambitious menu includes such modern musings as: Cornish lobster, beet carpaccio, beet sorbet and local goat's cheese; a duck triad of breast, confit leg and foie gras. Food and beverage manager Simon Stanbrook deftly pairs wine with the adventurous food.
Though it has no rooms, one spectacular restaurant in Cheltenham deserves inclusion on this tour. Chef David Everett-Mathias and his wife, Helen, have run Le Champignon Sauvage since 1986. Numerous awards--including two Michelin stars and a Decanter magazine selection as 2004 Restaurant of the Year -- attest to its excellence. But the restaurant's singular style exceeds all rankings. As one critic wrote, expect culinary fireworks.
Recently renovated and expanded into an adjacent building, the interior is cheerful, intimate and filled with lively modern art. Unflappable Helen graciously runs the front of house. She also selects the wine and matches it to food with inspired precision.
French-trained, David describes his cuisine as "logical." Confident techniques free his mind to explore new culinary possibilities. He's drawn to seasonal produce, deluxe products, humble odds of offal, wild herbs, edible flowers -- in short, to everything. Yet in his hands, diverse flavors balance and resolve into harmony on the plate.
Consider: seared Shetland diver scallops, with raw cauliflower, cauliflower puree and cumin froth; pan-fried cock's kidneys and langoustines, with cock's comb, langoustine tortellini and langoustine sauce; poached, roasted belly of Gloucester Old Spot pork, with pumpkin puree and razor clams. Desserts are lyric poems: lemon and pine kernel parfait, lemon curd, fromage frais and pepper sorbet; bitter chocolate and salted caramel delice, with malted milk ice cream; chicory cheesecake; dried gorse, flower-infused ice cream.
After dining, amble through Cheltenham's beautiful gardens and arcades of fashionable boutiques.
A two-hour detour from Bristol, Bath or Cheltenham brings you to beguiling Ludlow, a culinary gem. This hilltop city, with fascinating architecture and medieval castle ruins, thrives as a market town in the otherwise pastoral county of Shropshire, bordering on Wales. Specialty food shops line the steep streets. Quality local meat and produce provision an enviable larder to the cluster of fine-dining restaurants springing up here.
France-born chef Claude Bosi and his English wife, Claire, own Hibiscus--a five-year-old, two-Michelin-star restaurant garnering abundant awards and an international reputation. Smart decor contrasts unfinished stone with 17th-century oak paneling as a backdrop to contemporary art. Claude passionately drives an inventive modern French kitchen attuned to the seasons. Some tour-de-force offerings: carpaccio of Scottish scallops, with black radish and autumn truffle; warm Cornish oyster, with eucalyptus and artichoke tuile; and savory foie gras ice cream, with brioche emulsion and balsamic vinegar.
Chef Christopher Bradley and his wife, Judy, owners of Mr. Underhills, recently added a Michelin star to their attractive restaurant with rooms. The ingredient-driven, self-taught chef makes waves with his daily tasting menu and the thoughtful wine list mixing lesser-known labels with the big brands.
Just outside the city, on the road approaching Ludlow from the east, Overton Grange offers accommodation, in an Edwardian manor house, as well as the creative cookery of France-born Chef Olivier Bossut. One signature: chocolate raviolis of game, with wild mushrooms and game reduction.
Why Ludlow• Why not! The town is rich in culinary resources, stress-free compared to London, Birmingham or Paris and humming with vitality. As an alternate route there or back, check out the scenic valley of the River Wye, the evocative ruins of Tintern Abbey and the pretty town of Ross on Wye. If you have an evening to spare along the way, stop by The Bell at Skenfrith for gourmet dining and fine country lodging.
If you go
Getting there: Continental Airlines now offers direct transatlantic flights to Bristol -- less than an hour by car from Bath and Cheltenham. From Philadelphia, Boston and New York's Kennedy, British Airways, Virgin and American serve London Heathrow-- less than an hour's drive to Oxford. Flying to London Gatwick, served by US Airways and other carriers, adds another 30 minutes to 40 minutes. The M25, M40, M4 and M5 motorways provide fast routes but suffer endemic traffic congestion.
Getting around: Traveling by car provides valuable flexibility. For directions, use www.mapquest.co.uk or www.rac.co.uk . If challenged by driving on the other side of the road, trains are an option, though timetables lack reliability.
Details: Web sites for referenced properties offer online reservations, either by direct click-through or via an e-mail address.
Ann and Peter Haigh are co-hosts of "On the Menu," airing from 9 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WURP-AM 1550 AM.