There is a reason people spend fortunes on styling restaurants. Sometimes the decor is there to reassure, at other times to challenge our assumptions. But if you’re anything like me you’ll appreciate a little bit of signposting. We like it when a pub feels like an old English inn, when a Swedish restaurant is a combination of off-white and fur, if a Greek place is as white-washed as a little Greek church with a splash of blue as azure as the sky.
Which brings me to the Japanese Grill at Beaverbrook, a hotel that nestles in 470 acres of beautiful Surrey countryside, whose design bears no relation at all to the food that is served there. It strikes me that this is for practical reasons. For, come the morning, this is the breakfast room.
On two sides are large windows, the coving and ceiling are a burst of white and bright gold, the chairs and curtains are deep and lush, the floor parquet, and at one end is a large picture; a big splodge of orange. In other words, it’s perfect for a posh breakfast.
So obviously, come night-time, as a Japanese grill it’s a few chopsticks short of authentic. Which, to my mind, puts more pressure on the food. Because if our senses are not willingly seduced by the decor and atmos, the food had better be sensational. But more on that shortly.
Let’s first consider this place. What is now Beaverbrook – a hotel, spa and golf course with magnificent grounds, swimming pools inside and out, a bar, two restaurants and a cinema – was formerly called Cherkley Court. It was built for a successful wool manufacturer from Birmingham in the 1860s but takes its name today from a more famous owner, Lord Beaverbrook, who bought it in 1910 – a suitable house for a political titan and newspaper owner. Just 20 miles from London, it served as a handy place to schmooze the good and the great, and indeed its weekend guests included Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming and HG Wells.
By the early 2000s the property – with its vast kitchens, library, study, reception rooms, endless bedrooms, terraces, water features, little ponds and fountains – was in bad repair, an insane project for even a wealthy family. But now to its rescue have come Joel Cadbury and his business partner Ollie Vigors, entrepreneurs in the property and leisure business, and what they have achieved is simply astonishing.
A refurb costing some £90 million, a dogged battle with planning authorities which ended in victory for Cadbury and Vigors in the High Court. The result is an exquisite facelift, beautiful rooms, a wonderful Garden House restaurant, the gauche façade of the place softened by original detail everywhere you look.
And here’s me whingeing about the Japanese restaurant not being quite Japanese enough. But while that’s a matter of debate, what I’m sure of is that the food is not good enough. A plate of ‘yellowtail tiradito’ had its Peruvian dressing in the form of some distracting yuzu foam, which presented the unusual situation of having a beautiful piece of fish covered in washing-up lather.
The monkfish came as featureless bits of fish hidden in slimy mushrooms. A selection of sashimi – some griddled, some rare, some raw – was not as good as a respectable local lunchtime sushi bar. A line of eight dragon rolls (sushi rice topped with crispy prawn and avocado) was dull and disappointing, memorable only for how many you had to get through.
However, the ‘popcorn shrimp’, with tempura thicker than one usually gets in posh Japanese gaffs, had a pleasing crunchy texture. A huge mound of spinach leaves that came in a white sesame-miso dressing lent the plate an addictive quality, and we chomped them like rabbits recently escaped from the baddies’ warren in Watership Down.
One other thing did rescue the evening. A man called Giovanni Tallu. He was plucked from Annabel’s club in London where he had worked for almost 22 years. For Beaverbrook, this is like signing Gareth Bale. A more charming, entertaining and helpful sommelier you will be hard-pressed to find.
Delicately, nimbly, unobtrusively, wisely, he brought us a fabulous selection of wine and sake. From a Pouilly Fumé to the house Médoc via fragrant sakes Kawashin and Kuzuryu, we could have been eating mud and we would have been happy.
Tell you what, Joel and Ollie, improve the food, do fewer covers and put the Japanese place – and Mr Tallu – into the art-deco, pale-wood-panelled little cinema. Then you can turn the dining room into a modern British grill. And you won’t have to ask a High Court judge for the thumbs up.