The day: 22nd December 2006
The place: Denbies wine estate, London Road, Dorking, Surrey, RH5 6AA (01306 876616)
The venue: Gallery restaurant
The food: Gastropubbish
The drinks: Own wines only
As an ‘aperitif’ to our next Italian restaurant review, we want to tell you of a trip we made to Surrey last month, on the third day of the Great Heathrow Fog Chaos. Among other casualties, the plane Woman was supposed to board was also cancelled. We had to celebrate a couple of extra days together…so we went for English wine (note for Italian readers: yes, yes, such a thing exists, and sometimes, we are told, it can be pretty good, too). Denbies are the largest vineyard in the UK, with nine wines and one sparkling to their name at the time of writing (and we understand more are on the way).
As they also have two restaurants (one self-service) on their vineyard, we decided to pay it a visit (this is a food blog after all, we are wine appreciators but not experts, though we are trying to improve ourselves by reading the wine doctor).
The fog wasn’t missing from the Denbies estate, either:
The reception centre looks a bit like an out of town supermarket building, mmmh, not very promising:
The Gallery restaurant sits on the third floor, presumably with nice views over the vines – if only we could see them! The tiny tables (why? There is so much room!) are well spaced and allow about 50 guests in the bright dining room. No tablecloth at lunchtime, but they are on offer in the few evenings the place is open for dinner. In general the setting is pretty basic but not unpleasant, with much natural light.
The menu is short and to be honest not too inspiring (‘Beef tomato and sunblush tomato bruschetta?’ Wait a minute, we wanted to skip the Italian this time!).
Deleting all the uninviting ones, we were left with the crab cakes and the beef satay.
The presentation of the crabcakes, as for all the other dishes, leaves much to be desired…The undressed salads, with the sad looking thin cucumber slices, reminded us of the olden days of British cuisine . However Man thought the taste was fine: the cakes were moist and soft, though the chilly sauce was somewhat overpowering. Woman’s view was that there must have been prawns mixed in, whose taste was covering the crab’s.
We agreed that the beef was good and tender. The peanut sauce was fine, but the dish was again too far on the hot side.
For mains we had the plaice and the lamb.
The plaice: better not to look at it (let us just say it evoked weird associations!), but the quality of the basic ingredients was good; the plaice’s texture suggested it was fresh. Again the crab stuffing had a somewhat uncrablike flavour: surprising to say the least, but the dish came off rather nicely anyway, with the lemon butter providing an adequate contrast to the main flavour. Indeed, the best dish according to Man.
The lamb shank was instead Woman’s favourite: very tender meat, but the red wine reduction had not been prepared with the due time and care (too much starch added). Still, it added a welcome acidity to the lamb and the root vegs, not to mention the supersize-me portion of mash.
Finally, desserts, which were both off menu. The passion fruit bavaroise was sitting on a thin bed of sponge and had a nice consistency, firm but “spongy” and a satisfying tangy taste to complement the cream. For once there was even some attempt at presentation!
The same can’t be said for the horribly looking apple and Christmas pudding pancakes with calvados sauce. This may sound as an overly combined dish, in fact it worked surprisingly well, once more defying low expectations (could this be their strategy?).
We had four 175ml glasses of wine, to have a go at the local production (the only thing you’ll find on the list). Incredibly for a restaurant on the vineyard, it was not properly served. Come on guys, the glasses are way overfilled, how can one swirl the wine around before tasting it?
We tried Yew Tree Pinot noir 2003, Redland Pinot Noir 2004, Ortega 2004 and Bacchus 2004. Man found the perfume of the Bacchus quite impressive, too strongly lemony for Woman. The Ortega had nice melony notes. We might have been prepared to buy a couple of bottles of Yew Tree, which was velvety in the mouth, balanced and nicely sapid, had it not been for the fact that at £14 in the shop many more alluring choices spring to mind other than Denbies wine…However there is very little mark-up in the restaurant (£18 for the same bottle), thus making it overall a good deal.
Our final bill came to £68, including a large bottle of water. Service was not included (don’t worry, we left a tip). All in all, this is simple but honest fare, very plainly presented in generous portions. It would fit a smoky gastro-pub better than a restaurant (though, as we shall tell you in a future entry, there is better value for money in London for this category of food). The two young waitresses were charming, but the whole operation lacks a ‘heavier’ front room manager, who might for example advice on the wines, put up some show (they have a unique selling point after all), and so on.
Since one can have a nice stroll around the extensive vines, we might come back on the next flight cancellation for more wines by the glass and a bite in the self-service conservatory restaurant downstairs: there is really no need to go upstairs.