If you want to see at first hand the inside of a professional kitchen in full throttle, then book yourself a seat at The Chef’s Table inside Limewood Hotel, near Lyndhurst in Hampshire. There is a fine dining restaurant, called The Dining Room, and there is also a more informal brasserie, called The Scullery, (one of the prettiest rooms in the hotel), but neither can offer you the excitement, drama and pace of eating your lunch whilst facing the team who prepared it.
Wallow in the beauty and elegance of this Regency Five star hotel at your own pace, so make sure you arrive early and take a casual stroll around the grounds and the stylish drawing rooms. There is a smokehouse, extensive gardens, a large fish pond, a health spa and half a dozen or so different reception rooms for you to recline, relax, read the paper, sip your favourite tipple and be waited on hand and foot, a la Downton Abbey, but with no Edwardian stuffiness or reserve.
Despite the abundance of antiques, paintings and objets d’art, Limewood is casual and modern in its approach: in the conservatory babies eat an early lunch with their mothers and toys are spilled on tables; in the bar granny is being treated to birthday Champagne and in the library a group is deeply ensconced in a game of scrabble. The staff all look as if they are on the books of Elite Model Agency as their main occupation, and are merely moonlighting here as soon as their “big break” at Abercrombie & Fitch arrives.
As your waitress leads you through the doors of the kitchen, the temperature rises several degrees as does the noise. You are sat at a big, scrubbed wooden table beautifully set with blue and white Grayshott Stoneware plates. Richard Lloyd, the Chef in charge, meets you and greets you and your guests as the guttural groans and primal shouts of an all-male brigade behind him are working at full pace in a busy lunch service.
Rising steam, whirring mixers, hot ovens, flaming grills, clattering pans: it is all going on before you and it is as thrilling as it is educational. You can really see from close quarters the complexities and pressures of delivering perfect food in synchronised timing. Everything is in it’s place and there is a place for everything. “Yes, Chef!” they shout as our orders are placed, and you can see each section bringing together the disparate parts of each course.
There is only one girl in the brigade and she is behind a tiled wall in the Patisserie section. Richard explains how the team works and what he is making: firstly there is a selection of canapés he is preparing as “room gifts” for new guests and he shows how he handles ingredients with stainless steel tweezers to position them perfectly on plates. You can walk right up to his section and watch as he chooses the prepped ingredients lined in containers in front of him. He pulls out a wooden pasta board where fresh egg pasta is made every day before service, and he shows us the “chitarra” or wire cutter board with which he makes tagliolini and tagliatelle, and the rigatoni spirals that they are cooking today. Many of the ingredients are set out in stainless steel containers on his work table, and he turns from left to right to co-ordinate what the brigade is doing behind him as well as preparing his own dishes.
“Two beef away! Two lamb away!” shouts a tattooed sous chef, and two waiters race up to the pass and with the balance of ballroom dancers glide down the corridor carrying hot plates to the dining room.
The Scullery Menu and food at Lime Wood will surely surprise you: they are so simple, so unadorned, unpretentious and good value. We ordered the following starters, and be warned, portions are very generous:
Poachers pie with homemade piccalilli
Fig and walnut salad with blue cheese dressing
Lime Wood smoked salmon, pink fir potatoes, chicory and crème fraiche
Butternut squash soup
The cooking style is country home cooking done to a very professional standard: care, attention to detail and good provenance of ingredients are evident. This is how many good cooks eat at home, with minimum fuss and maximum flavour.
For our main courses came the following:
Mr. Zebedee, Lopshill Farm 28 day aged rump beef steak with all the trimmings
Pollock, beetroot, basil and brown butter
Fishcakes, poached egg and hollandaise
Ling fish fingers, crushed peas and tartare sauce.
Vicinity to the New Forest and the sea can only contribute to the success of this restaurant: right on its door step are some of the best artisanal food producers, growers, fishermen and butchers. British food in its finest hour is one of the best cuisines to be had.
Little wonder the place is so full: it appeals to families, to guests of all ages, across income and nationality. We heard many languages here.
So replete and cheery was our party we only managed a passion fruit flummery (passion fruit juice, puree and gelatine) and a spotted dick with custard, although the Floating Island – Isle Flottante is ear marked for the next visit, as is ice cream from Judes of Winchester. An alternative is to visit the sister pub, called The Pig, in Brockenhurst, a few miles away, on our list for the next trip to the New Forest.
Jorge Gertrudes, the Portuguese Assistant Manager is very helpful and friendly, and we had a joke about Lyndhurst. It took us at least half an hour of sitting on the A337 road that brought us here, as the traffic through this tiny little town is bumper to bumper. You will note amidst the charity shops and Budgens supermarket a glittering Ferrari and Maserati dealership: the New Forest does have its “bling” elements. But Lyndhurst also has handsome churches, a pretty high street, friendly residents and an old fashioned feel that should be enjoyed on foot. That is, if you can bear to tear yourself away from all the beauty and pampering at Lime Wood.
Lime Wood Hotel website: www.limewood.co.uk
Follow the team on Twitter: @limewoodhotel