Luxury breaks in fine English country hotels don’t come much better than the experience provided by Rockliffe Hall. While the original buildings date from the 18th Century, the offering throughout is distinctly modern. Beyond the beautiful grounds in which to walk, there is an impressive golf course, a recently renovated spa (the infinity pool outside is well worth a dip), an inventive playground for children and – importantly – three different and all very good restaurants in which to eat. The high point, where my comrade and I enjoyed full tasting menus that would easily rival Michelin-starred venues throughout the UK, was the Orangery.
The conservatory in which the restaurant resides sits at the edge of the original Hall buildings and benefits from a south-facing vista allowing diners to admire the beautiful grounds while eating (pre-dinner cocktails can be taken in a fine, older room, just adjacent). It is here that chef Richard Allen and his team are allowed to work their culinary magic. For those not aware, Richard has won multiple awards for his cooking (including from Catey’s and the Craft Guild of Chefs) and his talent was abundantly evident in all that we ate.
As is currently the fashion – but also only the right thing to do from an environmental point of view – the emphasis at the Orangery is on both local and seasonal. In this respect, Rockliffe Hall benefits considerably from having its own vegetable/herb garden from which much produce is harvested, but also three beehives located throughout the grounds. While there is a nod to the classic French, the main thrust of the cooking is modern British.
Across the six-course tasting menu we both sampled (a la carte is also available), there was no shortage of innovation. Richard Allen is not afraid of taking risks, and this clearly pays off. Consider my first plate, which comprised goose liver parfait paired with eel, rhubarb, chia and almonds. There was no shortage of strong and distinct flavours here, yet the balance across the dish was superb, the rich fattiness of the goose balanced by the oiliness of the eel, the sharp acidic bite of the rhubarb and the crunch of the nuts. Presentation here (as with every dish) was also superb. Plaudits too to the Sommelier. The ethos behind the wine pairings was similar to that underpinning the food – one where a nod is made to tradition, but there is also a clear willingness to push boundaries. My goose, for example, was paired with a classic Hugel Gewurztraminer from the Alsace, but elsewhere, there were offerings from Macedonia (hardly a mainstream wine-producing nation) as well as two breathtaking wines (a 2007 Rivesaltes aged in cognac barrels and a late-harvest sweet Malbec) served with each of the dessert courses.
Before jumping to the end of the meal, praise should also be awarded for the vegetarian tasting menu. There were no corners cut here and my comrade was delighted with all her options, noting that the team had made an effort to ‘mirror’ my omnivorous offerings wherever possible. Hence, the barbecued celeriac that came with my venison main (for the record, the venison here was easily as good, if not better, than that at Michelin-starred the Kitchin in Edinburgh where we also dined recently) also featured in her dish, where it was paired successfully with cabbage and wine-soaked raisins. Pudding saw the meal end on a high – not just the wine, but a beautiful chocolate ‘orangery’ (a deliberate homage to the venue). Cut into a hard orange-coated shell of chocolate and out comes gushing a rich chocolate mousse.
Service was attentive and professional throughout, with the staff in the Orangery (and indeed across the whole of the hotel) both genuine and passionate about what they did. Now note, the tasting menu costs just £65 (or £110 with paired wines included) and Rockliffe Hall – despite being almost in county Durham – is less than 2.5 hours from London. Pinch yourself, this is to be believed. Make the trip, and you won’t be disappointed.