The approach to Gidleigh Park literally takes your breath away. Nestled on the side of hill, amidst the glorious tumbling awe of Dartmoor and on the upper reaches of the River Teign, it sits majestically like a proud old dame. If she could talk, we’re sure she’d have plenty of stories to tell, especially since she’s been around in one guise or another since the 16th century. Aside from her years of wisdom, you also know she’s a class act as soon as you step inside the door.
Gidleigh Park is definitely a destination. It’s the kind of place you go for a special occasion – perhaps a loved one’s big birthday or an important anniversary. You’re made to feel special from the get go, as you’re ushered into an opulent lounge room, with a roaring fire and views out into the luscious gardens. A glass of Champagne is handed to us as we peruse the menu, followed by a selection of canapes, of which a Salcombe crab soup with apple is an absolute winner. At this point, we feel a little bit underdressed – wishing we’d taken a bit more time to spruce ourselves up for this high-class lunch date.
We’re here to sample the menu from the exec chef, Chris Simpson, who recently took over the reins from Michael Wignall. It’s a tough act to follow, with Michael helping to retain the hotel’s two Michelin star status. However, Chris comes with pedigree of his own, having been head chef for the past seven years at Nathan Outlaw’s two Michelin star flagship restaurant in Port Isaac and, needless to say, he does not disappoint.
We’re ushered into the dining room, a formal affair with starch white tablecloths and oak-panelled walls. At the time of writing, there were two lunch menus to choose from: an a la carte at £65 for three courses, and a special spring lunch menu (£49 for three courses and a glass of Champagne).
As we’re in a place of splendour, I thought I’d be a little decadent myself, opting for a starter of squab. Tender, delicately pink, with not the slightest smear of grease, the flavourful young pigeon was perfectly complemented by a delicate froth of parsnip, and a bacon and onion dressing. Creamy scallops, across the table, served with apple, celeriac sauce and truffle, made for a fresh, sweet opener.
Next, a meaty hunk of Cornish turbot, served with leeks and sprouting broccoli – a relatively simple dish which allowed the seasonal ingredients to do all the talking. The five-star flourish was added with a helping of rich, creamy caviar hollandaise. My dining partner opted for a succulent dish of salt chamber aged beef fillet, served with potato terrine and a silky cauliflower purée.
Nosily spying the next table’s dessert, we thought we’d follow suit with a blood orange curd, served with shortbread and rhubarb. Fresh, fruity and just the right side of tangy, the sweet crumbly shortbread incisively cut through any lingering acidity.
We finished, back where we started, with a coffee in the drawing room, next to a roaring fire. A chance for us to relax and savour the memories of the meal we’d just eaten, before pootling off back down the winding lane and to our reality, away from this fairytale venue.
All in all, Gidleigh Park’s menu and the people who work there are just like the venue itself: first class. To be honest,
with such high credentials we didn’t really expect anything else. Sure, this isn’t the type of place you’d go for a casual lunch – this is fine dining at its best. Best saved for those special moments in life when you really want to make an impression or celebrate in style. Our only teeny tiny criticism was that the dining room lacked a wee bit of atmosphere, with guests whispering in hushed tones rather than fully relaxing into proceedings. Perhaps it was the grandeur of the venue, or the fact that it was lunchtime. But don’t let that put you off: the exquisite food more than makes up for it.