William Sitwell reviews The Botanical Rooms at The Newt, Somerset: 'We should have stayed the other side of the barrier'

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The Botanical Rooms at The Newt, Somerset
Our critic rather regrets being lured in by mystery Credit: Dookphoto

I should have listened to the locals in Bruton, Somerset. They frowned when I said we were having lunch at The Newt. ‘I’d give it three out of 10,’ said one. ‘You should eat at Osip or the Roth Bar & Grill,’ said another.

The Newt is a country-house hotel that opened last summer, having had squillions lavished on it. I was intrigued to try it but I hate a wasted lunch, so we cancelled the booking and went for the new Osip instead, run by chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who sounds like he got his name in a Christmas-party porn-name game.

But to sate my curiosity, we decided to nip to The Newt for a drink and poke about. You arrive through a car park and come to an electric gate with a buzzer. The house and grounds sit mysteriously somewhere beyond.

‘Can we come for a drink at the bar please?’ I said to the voice that answered. ‘You need a reservation,’ was the reply. ‘OK, but we just want a drink and to see the hotel,’ I said. Another no.

We spied another entrance via the garden, so parked near it and I tried again. ‘Can I get to the hotel from here?’ I asked. ‘You need a reservation,’ I was told.

Damn this place, I thought, which doesn’t even allow passers-by in for a snifter and a squint. I thought it was a hotel, not a club. What kind of hotel bar bans passing trade? Not even Claridge’s, nor The Ritz. No wonder the locals were sniffy.

My curiosity was piqued, though, so we cancelled Osip and rebooked The Botanical Rooms restaurant at The Newt.

This time we were let through. We parked by some large outbuildings and were met by a member of staff, who was waiting to escort us in. We walked past neat hedges, vegetable patches, some clucking hens and a smart-looking gym, then up to the pretty entrance of a classic iron-stone Georgian building.

'The fish may have been wrong, but it was wonderful' Credit: Adel Ferreira

Inside, the place felt a bit sparse, more like a house converted into a school than a cosy hotel. The bar was empty (funny that) and we were given a table in the (almost empty) conservatory, off the main restaurant.

The staff were delightful with our 15-month-old son Walter, who wolfed down giant sausages while we were given a rather thin-tasting freebie velouté of apple and celeriac with shaved truffles.

Then came a simply awful starter. A cold piece of charred cauliflower with a mop of melted, beige cheese (‘smoked eel rarebit’) on top that tasted of kippers. My wife Emily was similarly baffled by her chicken wings. They were hiding under strips of pumpkin and swimming in a watery soup poured from a teapot.

Next up was an apology. But not for the starters. ‘The chef has cooked you sea bass by mistake, rather than the sand sole on the bone,’ Emily was told. Emily had spotted her dish en route to another table, covered in shrimps and capers. She was sad but agreed to the wrong fish as long as she could have some shrimps with it. And it may have been wrong, but it was wonderful. Cooked to perfection, crisp skin, buttery and gorgeous.

Then came my rib-eye steak, for £36. It was grey, with stringy fat, barely charred and overcooked. On top was a ‘sauce’ of ragu, a large dollop of deeply tasty slow-cooked pulled beef: perfect with pasta, odd on top of steak.

The manager detained me as we tried to leave, me tripping over a swirly sofa in the middle of a badly designed reception area. ‘This is the second idea we are trying here,’ he said pleadingly. ‘We did open our plant-based concept today,’ he added in vain, almost weeping.

It was raining as we left but, of course, no one offered umbrellas or to escort us back to the car. We should have stayed the other side of the barrier, with the welcoming folk of Bruton.