Grand days out: Cloisters
by Dan Izzard
11 September 2019
With dishes as beautifully constructed as its Georgian architecture, there’s reason to take your time at Bailbrook House’s restaurant
An unplanned restaurant visit is one of my signature moves. Sacking off whatever frozen, batch-cooked meal awaits a painfully slow defrost for the excitement of a just-released dish at Seven Lucky Gods, or the allure of Scallop Shell’s catch of the day is a common occurrence. Whims are the spice of life. I'm pretty sure that’s the saying.
There are some destinations, though, where whimsy just doesn't seem fitting. Bailbrook House Hotel is one of them. One does not just pop in, here. The surroundings are befitting of a fine-dining experience and that’s just what we’re hoping for as we roll down the formidable drive.
Sitting just 10 minutes from central Bath, Bailbrook houses 94 rooms and two restaurants. The building cuts an imposing profile, jutting out of the hillside with its Bath stone positively glowing in the late summer sun. Having once hosted the landed gentry, the venue was snapped up (after a brief tenure by the Royal Mail) by Handpicked Hotels and restored to its former glory.
Here, The Conservatory serves up modern British classics while Cloisters, a fine dining restaurant, is housed in the depths of the building under the impressive stone archways and entertains views across the grounds and surrounding valleys. This is where we've bagged an early-evening table and the best seats in the house. Sure, sometimes a shipping container and a bench seat is exactly what I want, but today, I’ve got my smart shoes on and I’m feeling opulent. That’s until I lean back and wonder whether the napkin – now draped over my lap – is of more value than the trousers it shields.
Before we lay eyes on our starters there are a few ceremonial formalities. There’s a choice of three breads to start (naturally): still-warm puffs of milk bread, rosemary focaccia and fennel. We’re also treated to a small jar of courgette soup whisked up into a light froth and topped with sunflower seeds. It’s a nice touch that quickly disappears as I make a scene trying to get the last velvety drops out with my spoon.
As H takes a brief interlude, I whip out my phone to Google ‘cloisters’, from which the restaurant takes its name. Unsurprisingly, these are not cloying oysters or closing hipsters. A cloister is a covered walk, open gallery or open arcade that runs alongside the walls of a building. Thank me when that comes up in a pub quiz.
Classical architecture lesson over, another structure has just landed on our table. The lamb croquette (£10) is a weighty breadcrumbed cylinder of finely shredded lamb. The meat has a substantial (and welcome) kick of heat, and even more so when smothered with the harissa yoghurt. Across the table, the asparagus starter (£9) is a pretty thing; trimmed spears lay next to a crispy egg and lucid green asparagus custard, a perfectly formed prism of cool jelly which is as fun to poke and divot with a spoon as it is to taste. Importantly, the deep yellow yolk at the centre of the crispy egg oozes out. There’s nothing more upsetting than a set yolk.
Due to a last-minute menu recommendation, I’ve ordered lamb for the main course too (£25). I’m glad I have – it’s a stunning plate of food. A landscape of sliced and ribboned courgettes rolled and standing on end, and delicate spots of purée. In the centre, the lamb rump sits on a hash brown which is most definitely not of greasy spoon descent. It’s a flavour-packed fried mesh of grated potato with fresh chives and, I assume, more butter than I should probably digest at one time not that it bothers me.
The lamb is silky and tender, a fine mouthful when paired with a dollop of sweet and fruity tomato chutney and a deeply earthy tapenade. Just as I was bemoaning the fact that I’d powered my way through half the rump, I spied the shredded cylinder of slow-cooked shoulder hiding behind a courgette pope’s hat. Washing this all down was the task of a bottle of Raccolto a Mano Rosso (£25). The Italian red has been specially created for the hotel group and the mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes is heavy in red berries and served at the perfect temperature.
Since visiting Brixham fish market I have a newfound love of (good) seafood and H’s main of roasted stone bass (£19) looks like a proper catch. A beautifully crisp skin gives way to firm flaky flesh which in turn, sits atop of a creamy buttery medley of haricot beans, Jersey royals and clams. Put the plate to your ear and you could probably hear the sea (don’t try that). With a squeeze of lemon, there’s a delicate zest to the sauce but overall this is a dish that benefits from restraint.
To finish in suitable style is the cheeseboard (£14) and the lemon meringue pie (£8). The board is packed with some local award-winners like the Bath Soft, cave-aged Wookey Hole Cheddar and Goddess (a buttery semi-soft cheese). The accompanying curried chutney is largely ignored as we sample some of the best fromage about. My pie, meanwhile, oozes with lemon curd and the meringue is accented subtly with basil. (I’d prefer it a little stronger to cut through the almost overpowering sweetness).
Cloisters is a class act from start to finish. The food has to be a little bit special if it was to match the grandeur of the surroundings and it is, with some of the most appealing plates I’ve had this year. The evening serves as a reminder that sometimes great food takes time, and there’s nothing wrong with taking the time to savour it.