The gabled house at number 1 Chesil Street in Winchester would not look out of place in the story of Hansel and Gretel, its low timber roof and diagonal black wooden braces evoking a time when the busy thoroughfares winding their arterial routes in and out of what is now one of Britain’s main tourist centres, were once no more than pebbled tracks by a river. It is presumed to be the oldest building in the city, dating from 1450, and as you step inside through its tiny front door, the low ceilings and dark beams draw you into a different era. King Henry VI is on the throne, England is on the cusp of the War of the Roses and rich wool merchants are warming their prosperous hands on the sort of open fire you see right in front of you.
I am greeted by Ian Longhorn, one of the owners of the restaurant who gives me a little guided tour around the building. I would urge you to arrive early, I would not have missed this part for the world. Each dining room is quite small, with wood burning stoves and furnishings that range from trendy to Tudor with one sweep of the decorator’s mood board. When five friends came together to buy this restaurant they decided to start afresh and refurbish the entire restaurant, from top to bottom, buying pieces mainly at auction.
They set about creating a very muted palette of light greens, earthy browns, linen whites and touches of claret red here and there. You will see stuffed birds, prints and paintings of fox hunting, stags, flowers and fish, leather banquettes, dining chairs upholstered in tweed, damask and houndstooth. Colefax and Fowler meets Nina Campbell, the Gloucestershire Old Parsonage and the Scottish Highlands hunting lodge. A great deal of thought and care has been taken by the interior designer, Shaun Clarkson, to make the whole experience sumptuous, comfortable and cosy.
The winning room, must definitely be the upstairs private dining room, replete with moose antler lighting, stuffed heron and a stately 12 seater banqueting, candle lit table. Even if you do not need the loo, I urge you to go and see it. Up a winding, narrow wooden staircase, you tread along the most beautiful shiny oak floorboards you have ever seen, through doors that have felt the push and pull of 561 years of human hands, past umbrageous, silent nooks and crannies. The wealthy merchant that once built this trophy residence would feel at home here, even now.
Back downstairs, I am sat at my corner table with several Menus. There is a “New Forest Hampshire Asparagus Menu”, offering everything you could possibly imagine doing to the seasonal grassy spears: a soup with soft boiled hen’s egg, or served with cheese (Winchester Old) and rock salt, or with sauce hollandaise, or with a fried duck’s egg or even with truffle dressing. There is a very reasonable set Menu, two courses costing £15.95 and three courses £19.95. The main A la Carte Menu is quite short, only 6 starters and 6 main courses, and the underlying tradition is obviously British, but with a training, somewhere along the line in a classically French kitchen. Damian Brown is the Head Chef here, and he has won his accolades through consistency and hard work, the evidence is clear.
I enquire about the provenance and suppliers of the ingredients from my waiter, James, and he practically knows their inside leg measurement. They have done their shopping research very well, and have relied on farmers and growers that are mainly from within a few minutes down the road, in Lymington or Romsey or even the food market on the High Street.
Ian brings a small wicker basket of homemade bread rolls, and I settle in with my glass of the house Rose wine, reading a wine list that is predominantly European, even offering a local Hampshire wine, from Danebury Vineyards. Most bottles range from £20 to £45, and there is a very good selection of wines by the glass.
My asparagus soup is creamy, fragrant and rich, with a soft, runny egg that tastes of corn and open pastures. Despite the elegance of the surroundings, the clientele is very informally dressed. In the corner, a pair of extremely attractive ladies in the Autumn of their years are chatting about visits to the local National Garden Scheme open days, and to my right a small group of stripy shirted American tourists are ticking off the local sights that they have come to see. Over their Pressed Chicken Terrine, with baby leeks and Stockbridge mushrooms with tomato dressing, they agree that that they have now “done” Winchester.
My braised neck of Hampshire lamb is meltingly soft, moist and hot, sitting on a crispy, buttery mound of Anna potatoes, surrounded by a wreath of garlic fritters, tomatoes and wild garlic pesto. This dish brings back memories of holidays in Provence and Mediterranean trattorie. The whole combination is so pleasing and comforting, I could have eaten the portion twice, had I known of its excellence before ordering the starter.
My pudding is a very simple poached pear, with a nutty praline ice cream scoop that is sitting on its own little puffy pillow of powdered praline. A little jug of warm, thick dark chocolate sauce sits on the plate next to it. As I finish the pear and ice-cream faster than the chocolate sauce, I then proceed to pour the chocolate sauce, and eat several spoonfuls, one after the other. I feel no remorse, until I see that the American tourists are looking at me. I smile apologetically, recommending they try the same pudding. They then resume their plans to “do” Bath.
If you are visiting Winchester, and you want to get away from the frenetic bustle in a city in which a population of over forty thousand residents and three hundered thousand tourists a year inevitably brings, then The Chesil Rectory is a quiet, peaceful, haven of stylish pleasure, tucked away in a world where time and worry stand still. The food is delicious, classic and contemporary, conceived and created by young and intelligent people who evidently love their job, the industry that employs them and the customers they serve. I am now plotting to “do” their sister establishment, The Three Tuns in Romsey. All this “doing” certainly gives one an appetite. Admire and mind the low beams as you go out.
The Chesil Rectory
1 Chesil Street
Winchester SO23 OHU
Telephone: 01962 851555