I can’t help internally wincing when it transpires a successful professional (who I assume has a least a couple of years on me) reveals they’re my junior. It’s just pent up regret, really, for reaching 31 without having won that BAFTA, published (or written, or conceived) that first novel, become a yoga master or made it to the end of Ulysses.
Charles Smith, head chef at Lords of the Manor, has a CV populated with the likes of the celebrated Kitchen Table and former ‘Best Restaurant in New York’ Per Se (there are five Michelin stars between those two alone), and is but 29.
The luxury 17th-century manor is built from honey-coloured stone and set in a beautiful little Cotswoldian village where time has, aesthetically at least, stayed very still for the last couple of hundred years. As you might imagine, it’s a pretty fancy place; the kind where antiques populate every room, plush chairs are too many to count, and table lamps are the size of schoolchildren.
Dinner begins in the bar-cum-lounge with an aperitif – flanked by two of the aforementioned lamps – while sporting a rather red face.
See, we’d arrived a little later than planned (what surprises!) but, still, I had to squeeze in a soak in the freestanding tub in a bathroom that’s about the same size as my flat – and, in my rush, jumped in while the water was still hotter than the sun. I’d exacerbated the situation by blow-drying my hair and so could almost feel my eyes slipping down the side of my melting face as I ordered my pre-dinner drink. Luckily, this was nothing that the icy gin and tonic and my new subdued, relaxed surroundings couldn’t rectify.
There are now two restaurants at the hotel – the flagship 14-cover Atrium and the slightly more informal but still high-end Dining Room. We’re shown through to the former – with its velvet-upholstered chairs, tables cloaked in thick, soft linen and views out onto the preened gardens – for the eight-course tasting menu (£95, or £182.50 with the wine flight).
A scallop shell arrives nestled in crushed ice holding tiny cubes of raw, marinated Orkney scallop (coupled with Champagne, it makes for the ultimate fish and fizz pairing), followed by almost translucently thin, meltingly soft discs of Carpaccio-style rose veal, arranged around a centre of light and silky crème fraîche encased in an airy potato-crisp ring (and partnered up with a fresh and clean Riesling, delicate and cleansing).
Onwards, and a pheasant egg, coddled in brown butter, hides umami-laced shiitake-oil-soaked croutons beneath; Cornish red mullet sits in a pool of bouillabaisse sauce with tiny dots of rich liver tapenade; and lamb is served with confit Jersey Royals, cubes of soft belly and tiny spheres of ewe’s curd rolled in mint.
Cheese comes paired with a honey-coloured wine that proves effortlessly cleansing of the soft Bosworth Ash, itself served with oozing honeycomb, with that natural, floral sweet-savoury taste that bees have spent millennia nailing.
The evening sun has been streaming in through the central glass skylight in the round room, but now, as we get going on the last course – a refined take on an Eaton Mess, served with a gently sparkling red wine – the daylight has almost completely died out, and I’m beginning to stretch my limbs and think of the multiple pillows in my room upstairs.
The food here is ambitious for sure, and shows plenty of skill. It feels special while avoiding pretention (thanks in part to the amiable staff who serve it), and is a departure from the stuffy atmosphere and old-school French-style cookery that for so long dominated venues like this.
Lords of the Manor previously held a Michelin star (and did so for eight years), and while getting it back is very much on the agenda of Preston-born Smith, the efforts of this down-to-earth twentysomething seem, first and foremost, to be spent simply making his punters happy with good food.
Taking that all into account, you may be in the market for some appetite-awakening walks while here. Stroll between the villages of Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter, or venture to Bourton-on-the-Water or Stow-on-the-Wold – all beautiful villages of ancient stone cottages, lush greenery and pheasants pootling in and out of hedgerows. The National Trust’s Hidcote Manor Gardens are nearby too, but if you’d rather save the drive and stay within the vicinity of food, the hotel has its own eight acres of landscaped English country gardens that are well worth checking out.
Although this ’woldian hotel might seem rather formal or traditional at first glance, the professional and experienced staff are friendly and chatty, and the whole experience much more down to earth than you might expect.
Travel: About an hour and a half from Bath or Bristol by car Stay: Rooms start at £180 for bed and breakfast, based on two adults sharing Great for: Chill time among pretty villages and landscaped grounds, and refined, skilled food without the stuffiness
Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter, Cheltenham GL54 2JD; lordsofthemanor.com