Great milestones such as anniversaries deserve something a little special, such as a beautiful hotel experience, great English countryside, fine dining and lots of romance.
For our 20th anniversary celebration we had chosen to spend the night at South Lodge, a grandiose and impressive country house near Horsham in Sussex. Just under an hour from London, the lodge is set in 93 acres of English countryside and boasts The Pass, a very fine 3 AA rosette restaurant where we were looking forward to dining that evening.
We had lunched at Quaglinos in Mayfair, so it was a really easy drive straight out of London and down the A3 with a short hop across the M25 to reach South Lodge. Once arrived a long drive leads you straight to the imposing hotel entrance where we parked under the porte-cochère. Our bags were unloaded and the car whisked off to the parking bays nearby. The stone and slate building loomed impressively, warm and inviting in the late afternoon English drizzle as we sauntered in.
The reception staff greeted us by name and all the paperwork was waiting, so it took mere minutes before we were shown to our room, Tanza Night on the first floor. All the rooms here are named after orchids, the second floor rooms after butterflies, the ground floor after Sussex landmarks, with the gardens of Sussex gainfully employed for the lower ground floor.
Tanza Night is in the new part of the building, so the room retains the historic architecture, but is airy and spacious, with a great view out over the gardens and landscape facing the setting sun. The bathroom is much roomier than usual for such an old country house, with a large tub and facing tv screen, plus a curvaceous modern luxury tiled shower with top and side water jets for your own spa fun.
The roofless four poster bed was sumptuous and comfortable, with a sofa, table and desk widely spaced before it. We quickly unpacked so we could venture outside to have a wander around the grounds. The gardens around the back extend forever, gently sloping down past a rushing, babbling brook, with a single wintery denuded tree holding a bobbing wicker chair dancing in the wind.
Just west of this tree is a new addition in the making. A spa to rival the biggest in Europe, complete with 22m indoor infinity Pool, an 18m outdoor heated swimming pond, all built into the landscape, including a grass and wildlife roof that will blend the structure into the surroundings. South Lodge are investing £11 million in this new 4 story state of the art spa, due for completion in 2018, and it will also offer a spin studio, nail bar and pedicure suite, a male grooming bar and a 70-seater restaurant with extensive outside dining. Something to look forward to for our next visit.
As the light fell we ambled gently towards the bar to warm ourselves by a cool bottle of Taittinger Champagne. The range of drinks and cocktails available at the bar are exquisite, so much thought has gone into offering all the finest local tipples as well as established gins, vodkas and the latest trend to hit the bars, finely made rums. After lingering perhaps too long over the champagne and cocktails we eventually allowed ourselves to be ushered into The Pass restaurant.
The dining area is modern with an open space kitchen in full view of the guests, arranged in such a way that it does not intrude, but adds to the visual aesthetic. The head chef is Ian Swainson who creates a fully holistic chef’s table experience, presenting a set course of either eight or ten dishes, perfectly balanced to slide you through a range of eclectic tastes and textures.
As lightweights we opted for the eight course menu and got stuck into the bubbly again as we enjoyed the lively ambiance, sitting high on the tall stools. The decor reflected a mix of urban greys, silvered mirrors and screens set in neon pink, with brown leather banquettes, a clever fusion of city and country luxury interiors. The place was buzzing with both couples and families enjoying special events of their own, celebrating a cold winter’s evening in such fine surroundings.
Our first course was Geometrics, a precisely shaped celery, tarragon mayonnaise, with sherry and hazelnut, and the flavour of the celery was much more perfumed and sweet than expected, delicious.
Second came Potato with its Head in the Clouds. A potato mousse with confit quails egg, potato strings and butter foam. A lovely mix of light textures, sweet butter that wafted easily over the tongue, with the egg and potato providing the soft fluffy tasting notes. A potato perfume sensation.
Third was Walk the Line, red wine braised snails, baby onion with watercress and garlic. Deep, dark, rich, juicy, providing a full rush of flavours. Something akin to luscious, sweet dates made savoury with skilful cooking. A wonderful counterpoint to the previous courses. Presumably named after Johnny Cash, who sang dark soulful songs, full of emotion and the blues.
In fourth came Cut your Nose off, Tandoori mutton belly, with coconut, kaffir cream and mint. This was a great success, the most tender mutton ever presented, cooked to perfection, finely balanced between the coconut and the mint. This was now in first place as favourite for the best course of the meal award.
Fifth was a Contradiction in Colour, confit Carabineros prawn, served with leek oil and black and white lasagne. A delicate dish, keeping the theme of playing textures and tastes against each other, a host of flavours available by simply combining the ingredients in different ways on your fork.
Sixth was Seeing Red, roasted duck breast with beetroot, red cabbage and duck liver. A sublime end to the savoury menu, the rich soft duck competing against the mutton for best dish.
Before you quiver at the thought of so many dishes and their effect on your waistline, each is small enough to keep you pining for the next course, but large enough to supply a luxury mixture of flavours.
We foolishly skipped the cheeseboard, having lunched too well, and went straight into the seventh offering, a Concrete Paradise. Poached rhubarb and puree with rapeseed oil vinaigrette and balsamic meringue. I won’t spoil the surprise but head chef Ian Swainson does amazing things with rhubarb!
Lastly we tucked into the Solar Eclipse, a lemon posset with curd, white truffle ice cream and white chocolate. The chef uses Thai baby basil to lift the palate, it resounded like lemongrass across the tongue and was an absolute show stopper, sharp and crisp. A clean finish to a fabulous meal, mixing the chocolate and the citrus to keep it light and fresh, whilst satisfying our need at this stage for uplifting endorphins.
The menu kept us and everyone else chatting about the creative presentation, naming and thought that had clearly gone into each and every fusion of ingredients. It was a superb experience, dining on ideas and craftsmanship in a modern decor that aptly displayed the making of these artist endeavours, though perhaps not the years of training and skill it took to pull them off with such mastery.
We retired to the bar replete and happy, ready for another couple of cocktails to cap off this excellent day and stay at South Lodge. A perfect end to a perfect day celebrating a wonderful anniversary!