Georgian architecture makes for gloomy, cramped basement restaurants, right? Not so, says LAURA ROWE
When you live in the city for any period of time, it becomes very easy to forget the concept of real space – the sort where kitchens aren’t ‘galley’ and bedrooms aren’t ‘bijou’, simply because they don’t have to be. Take Bath, for instance, where the dark basements of Georgian town houses are where most restaurants can be found. Sure, we can put a positive spin on it – call them ‘intimate’ and ‘romantic’ – but more often than not what we really mean is ‘cramped’ and ‘poorly lit’.
This being the case, the newly refurbished Bailbrook House, at London Road West on the outskirts of town, very much bucks the trend. It’s vast – a Grade-II-listed Georgian manor house, which, thanks to a £10 million refurb by new owners Handpicked Hotels in June, is now a sparkling hotel with 94 rooms and two restaurants.
It’s a tale of two halves: the majority of the hotel’s facilities are to be found in the modern annexe, Bailbrook Court, which has some of the best conference facilities in Bath – its largest function room, The Brunel Suite, can cater for up to 160 – and a more casual restaurant too, called Lansdown Brasserie.
The manor house proper, though, is what’s truly special here. Lounges, filled with sink-into armchairs and cavernous fireplaces, look out over the Avon Valley and the 20 acres of private grounds. There are 13 magnificent suites here, with the grandest beds, deepest baths and showers so big that they almost invite a scandal…
But now an admission: yes, the house’s main fine dining restaurant, Cloisters, actually is located in the cellar. But, as an experience, it’s miles away from the dank basements referenced above – instead, this is a large open space, with intricate golden Bath stone ceilings, lights modelled on those seen in Warwick Castle, and tall windows framed by creeping wisteria. Even better, tables are spaced well apart, meaning you don’t have to enjoy your meal in hushed tones.
At the moment the restaurant is only open in the evenings, 7-9.30pm, and for Sunday lunch from 12.30- 2pm, though upstairs you can also indulge in all manner of afternoon teas. It’s definitely worth coming here in the daytime, just to make the most of those bucolic views – and all only five minutes from the bustling city centre.
The menu has been created by head chef Peter Manners, who takes his inspiration from the surroundings – his meat comes from Bartlett Butchers and veggies from Lovejoys in Melksham, where the majority of their growers are within a 10 mile radius. There’s a three-course table d’hote menu for £36, with more than a few interesting dishes; how does five-spiced fillet of Scottish salmon with wok vegetables and noodles, star anise and orange cream sound? Or roasted butternut squash with a thyme and ginger brûlée, herb cheese crumble and toasted tomato bread?
We opted for the a la carte though. Seared Cornish scallops (£10) bathed luxuriously in a heady, cream bisque, muddy coral in colour and seaside in flavour. Lurking beneath the rock-like scallops, two crab ravioli were just as perfect – soft, silky pasta protecting pockets of fresh, clean white crab meat. A colourful baked pumpkin and Capricorn cheesecake (£8) was sweet and savoury and had a hit of spice from a pokey pumpkin jam. The portions are delicate and just enough to satisfy.
Sous chef Matt Brookes was in charge of the kitchen during our visit and his attention to detail, as displayed by the precise cooking of our Welsh coast sea bass (£27), was exemplary. The crisp skin gave way to succulent flakes, which soaked up the elegant clam and mussel butter sauce below. Creamed potatoes and spinach rounded it off, although a trendy smidge of something sweet (apricot purée, perhaps?) was unexpected and unnecessary.
The fillet of Lackham Farm beef (£35) was mighty and again expertly cooked ‘medium rare’, as recommended by the kitchen. A wild mushroom and truffle confit was sticky and earthy – it tasted like all of the best bits from a roasting pan had been scraped up and spooned on top. A potato rosti and roasted veggies (a rich colour palette of swede, turnip, carrot and cherry tomatoes) made up the rest of the plate, along with an intense Tawny Port wine jus.
Little was muttered between me and fellow snaffle maiden Soph as we tucked into our puds – they were that good. My Somerset pear tart tatin (£9) was buttery and sweet, uncomplicated by the usual spice: all it needed was its simple swirl of sticky caramel and some very naughty Cornish clotted cream ice cream. Soph’s parfait (£9) proved that chocolate and bananas go together like cookies and cream – the parfait delivering a smooth bitter cocoa hit, the glazed bananas tingling with the gentle sweet heat of cinnamon. Delish.
This restaurant might be off your Bath dining radar thanks to its out-of-town location, but for classical fine dining, a striking location and room enough to swing an aristocat, Bailbrook House is more than worth the journey.
✱ CLOISTERS RESTAURANT at Bailbrook House, Eveleigh Avenue, London Road West, Bath BA17JD; 01225 855100; www.bailbrookhouse.co.uk