Restaurant review: The Elephant Hotel, PangbourneBy Sally Bryant
December 14, 2011
Being invited to review a game menu is rather splendid – the images are all hearty, tweedy and distinctly Clarissa Dickson-Wright-ish.
Okay, perhaps that's just me and I wasn't actually asked to shoot my supper, but it does make me think of steaming dishes of comfort food to keep out the cold.
It also seems to make me write like Enid Blyton, which I will stop now.
The game season started on October 1 and runs through until January. My invitation to sample some of its glories came from The Elephant Hotel in Pangbourne, which fitted in very nicely with my mood.
The hotel bills itself as offering “a return to the opulence of the Empire” – I am sure in those days, more people would have celebrated (or even noticed) the game season than today.
The Elephant has been in the Hillbrooke Hotels fold, along with a select few now including The Bath Arms at Longleat, since 2007.
Hillbrooke insists it offers quirky luxury, not boutique – although its colonial-style rooms are all individually decorated and its ethos includes offering an informal atmosphere of fun, friendliness and efficiency, which sounds pretty ‘boutique’ to me.
I was there only for the dining room to try head chef Chris Ayres’ take on the season. You can eat in the BaBar bar (try saying that after a couple of Singapore Slings) but Tony and I were shown into Christoph’s restaurant for some finer fine dining.
As The Elephant’s game menu is on the hotel’s website, our appetites were well and truly whetted and decision-making didn’t take agonising hours. Four starters and four mains are on offer. Gamekeeper’s broth and game terrine (confit of rabbit terrine, wrapped in pancetta, melba toast and piccalilli) sound delicious but we went for game salad and game sausage.
Chris Ayres has provided two of the recipes for the game menu (as have all Hillbrooke head chefs for their hotels) and one is my choice of hot smoked duck, walnuts and baby pear salad. A generous four slices of pink-hued duck were lined up precisely with attractive salad and a golden, fanned pear.
The duck wasn't quite as smoky tasting as I expected, but it was almost sweet and very tender. I was a little disappointed that it was cold – I realise it was 'hot-smoked', rather than ‘hot, smoked’ but the recipe is on the bottom of the menu and if you followed it, the duck would be warm. Mine was fridge-cold.
Tony’s Game Sausage was Vicars Game specially-made white pudding. This seems to be a bit of a misnomer, as there isn’t any game in white pudding, but it was fantastic – obviously more delicate than a black sausage, but beautifully seasoned and seared. Tony’s starter was a fair size and garnished with autumnal plum.
When it came to mains, we left the feathered game options (partridge, pearl barley mash and curly kale, or pan-roasted pigeon, shallot and thyme tarte tatin, fondant potato and red wine jus) for another day.
Tony’s wild boar cassoulet, butter beans and toasted bread was a winner. It had real depth of flavour, but it didn’t trample the taste buds as wild boar could. The beans added texture and the bread (the same soft, silky bread we had with dipping oil when we arrived) was essential for mopping it all up.
It was a great supper.
I ordered venison pie, braised red cabbage and mashed potato, which sounds about as hearty as you can get. I was expecting rich filling under a (preferrably gravy-soaked) pastry lid, or even a gloriously sodden pastry bottom as well – a pie, in other words. What arrived was more lightweight.
Beautifully tender venison in quite a delicate sauce was spooned onto the plate and a wing of crisp, buttery flaky pastry hovered above it, a precise quenelle of potato and the colourful cabbage.
It was more nouvelle cuisine than the gutsy fare I had envisaged, but the flavours were very good and the cabbage had enough warm spice to cheer any chilly autumn night.
Whereas my pie was a little on the dainty side, the same could not be said for my dessert. With a little encouragement from lovely waitress Irene, I dived into Elephant mess (yes, I know). Apparently this is a favourite with the ladies, but this one admitted defeat.
It was a huge bank of whipped cream, studded on the outside with plums, almonds and mini meringues (not mixed together, as in Eton). It was a feast for at least three and if your personal heaven is made of cream cakes, it has your name on it.
Tony had the much more delicate peanut butter parfait with raspberry jelly and cookie crumb. Actually he didn't, because I thought this was scrummy and swapped.
The game menu is £18.50 for one course, £23.50 for two and £28.50 for three. Our dishes weren’t too gamey, either, so don’t be put off by clichés of shot-riddled birds hanging till they rot.
We enjoyed our meal and The Elephant is a cosy place to spend an evening – plenty of quirky lamps and ornaments, squashy sofas in front of the fire and slightly faded Persian rugs.
It’s the stuff of more glamorous times gone by, as I suppose are celebrations for the hunting season, but at least now you don’t have to be landed gentry (or a poacher) to enjoy the season’s game – it’s at the Elephant on an elegant plate.
Whatever you need this Christmas, go to www.LocalMole.co.uk - the fast, accurate local business directory.
- Telephone: 0118 9842244
- Website: www.elephanthotel.co.uk
- Address: The Elephant Hotel
Pangbourne RG8 7AR