Ston Easton Park
I’ve driven past the gates of Ston Easton Park on my way to and from Bath so many times and always wondered what lay beyond. So one day last week, I didn’t drive on by. I turned in and discovered that at the end of a winding, tree-lined drive is an 18th century Palladian mansion – which is so Jane Austen I half expected Mr Darcy to appear at any moment – set in over 30 acres of landscaped parklands.
It also happens to have the reputation of being one of the finest hotels and restaurants in Somerset – it’s certainly one of the grandest. So, like any self-respecting glutton, I booked a table for a lunch and invited along a friend.
The house was lived in by the Hippisley family for about 400 years up until the 1950s, after which it fell into such bad condition that it was almost demolished. Now it’s a privately owned country house hotel, with 20 bedrooms, the Sorrel Restaurant and various original features like the mahogany bookcases in the library, a Print Room, servants’ quarters and kitchen. The entrance hall alone is pretty impressive, with portraits, armchairs, big flower displays and a door which leads to a very grand saloon…
… a vast room with an ornate corniced ceiling, 20-foot-high windows draped with silk curtains, neo-Classical busts, a roaring fire and lots of sofas and armchairs.
Softly spoken staff helped us off with our coats, offered drinks, and took our order before inviting us through to the wood-panelled Sorrel Restaurant. Tables are covered with starched white linen tablecloths and set with giant folded linen napkins (placed onto your lap by the waiter, of course) and those huge platters that you tend to find in formal restaurants.
First, the bread: artistically arranged focaccia, spring onion and cheddar puffs, poppy seed crispbread and seeded white rolls.
Then onto the feast. The Brunette had chosen the 5-course tasting menu: goat’s cheese panna cotta with parmesan crumb (on the green plate, top right); lobster risotto with samphire; pineapple sorbet; lamb rump with garlic & rosemary polenta, greens and air-dried tomatoes; and finally, hot chocolate fondant, pistachio and coffee ice cream. And yep, she managed to eat the lot.
The Bottle Blonde went off piste to the a la carte: salmon gravadlax with horseradish; cutlet and loin of lamb with celariac & apple champ and cocotte potato; then rhubarb creme brûlée. All tasted as good as they look here.
And to finish (yes, there’s more to come), squares of saffron jelly (which I admit, we weren’t keen on) and chocolate fudge (which we very much were), to nibble with our coffee.
The food is superb, many of the ingredients are grown in the kitchen garden, and beautifully presented (well, you can see that for yourself). Service is formal, attentive and unobtrusive.
After lunch, we had a stroll around the parklands which were landscaped by Humphry Repton, the last of the great 18th century landscape gardeners. Even in February, they’re impressive.
This is a place to come to for a special lunch (or dinner) – a birthday, Mother’s Day, anniversary or other celebration – the sort of place where you’d make a bit of an effort to dress up and try not guffaw too loudly. Having said that, it’s got a friendly atmosphere and you feel a bit like you’re a house guest at a stately home (not that I’ve ever been a house guest in a stately home). They’ve even got a house dog you can take on walks around the grounds – meet Oscar, the rather rotund spaniel…
Good for: foodies, ladies who lunch, anyone with something special to celebrate – birthdays, Mother’s Day, anniversaries, lunch without the kids, and couples (it’s a romantic setting)
Not for: those wanting to grab a quick, casual bite, this is leisurely fine dining or those who fancy a raucous time – it’s got a rather refined atmosphere. It’s not suitable for families with young children either, for the same reasons.
£££: Moderate (more expensive in the evenings). The 5-course tasting lunch menu is very good value at £26. On the a la carte menu starters £7.50/8; mains £16.50-£28.50; desserts £7.50-9. Dinner: the 5-course tasting menu is £49.50; a la carte two courses from £23.50/three courses from £29.50