Cottonmill Lane • St Albans • AL1 2HQ • 01727 864477
Reviewed by Jill Glenn
Tucked away in the country just beyond St Albans, the elegant Sopwell House Hotel is possessed of a couple of splendid restaurants. The Brasserie with its open plan kitchen offers a touch of theatre, while the more formal Restaurant, which has an AA rosette, serves sophisticated British and European signature dishes.
I’m in the latter, where white walls and linen, wooden flooring, and tones of grey and burgundy create an atmosphere that is pleasantly cool, calm and relaxed.
Immediately, we’re presented with canapés – a little bowl of salt and vinegar popcorn (very fresh, very moreish), and a tiny, savoury cheesecake affair with wonderfully short pastry. Service thereafter is moderately paced – even slow – and we wonder about the possible arrival of bread (given that there’s butter on the table); indeed, we wonder about the possible arrival of the wine waiter, to take our drinks order.
All in good time, though, and all worth waiting for. Next there’s an amuse bouche – a shot glass of an extremely tasty gazpacho – and then the starters: Cornish Crab, Tomato Gel, Compressed Cucumber and Fennel Cress for me; A Pressing of Ham Hock and Duck Liver, Pea Purée and Crisp Crumbed Quail Egg for my companion. They are so pretty, especially the crab. I’m tempted to take a discreet picture on my phone, but it’s definitely Not The Thing here.
In the centre of a plain white plate, the crab is surrounded by little dots of the bittersweet gel – red, orange, yellow – and tiny cubes of cucumber, topped with the cress. It’s like an artist’s palette. The flavour is delicate, the texture melt-in-the-mouth, and that hint of the sea is just delicious.
Opposite me, the ham is also going down a storm, with its good, strong flavour; the pea pureé is vivid on the plate, and clean in the mouth. It’s a great marriage of ingredients.
After the drama of the starters, the main courses look a little underwhelming. They’re nicely laid out, certainly, though less elaborate…
…but that turns out to matter not a jot. My Canon of Salt Marsh Lamb, Onion and Garlic Purée, Broad Beans, Tomato and Tarragon is possibly the most delicious lamb dish I’ve ever eaten. The meat, pink at my request, is very tender; the dark green broad beans are very fresh and perfectly cooked, and the tomato adds an unusual zing of flavour. I love the wilted lettuce. I can’t identify the onion and garlic purée as an individual element, though it may be melting into the jus, but I can live with that: the jus is deep and rich and coherent. The flavours. Oh, the flavours.
My guest’s Pan Fried Fillet of Stone Bass, with Cauliflower, Salsify and Red Wine Jus, is a lovely piece of fish. The salsify adds texture, enhancing every mouthful, and the jus is heavenly. There’s something nutty lurking somewhere, too.
Desserts are as lovely to look at as starters. On the other side of the table, Ricotta Cheese Cake, Lemon Ice, and Honey Caviar is a great assembly: the cheesecake light and creamy; the lemon cutting sharply through to bring everything alive in the mouth. My Bitter Chocolate Marquise, Mint Parfait and Chocolate Chréameaux is a stylish, clever concoction. The parfait is soft and strong and melts beautifully in the mouth; the marquise, with its crunchy top and its little layer of something fruity, is rich and thick and unashamedly chocolatey. My eyes and my brain think the combination of mint, fruit and chocolate a little odd. My tastebuds beg to differ; every mouthful is a delightful adventure.
Actually, that applies to the whole meal…
Dinner: 2 courses - £30 • 3 courses - £35
House Wine £21.50