Wot no tree bark? Under Colin McGurran, Winteringham Fields remains a celebration of fine dining and the humble china plate, says Jill Turton.
Let me take you back to the final of TV’s Great British Menu in 2012. The winning starter was called Quail in the Woods. It was a dish of roast quail and tempura quail eggs, surrounded by a startling amount of greenery and flowers all presented on a large slab of bark. All it needed was some small woodland creatures to complete the scene. Maybe it tasted wonderful – it did win – but it looked as if it belonged on Springwatch more than any dining table.
It typified the presentational excesses, no doubt stimulated by TV, that strangely excite chefs and have seen food served in Perspex boxes, on tennis racquets, shovels and in stiletto shoes. I kid you not. There’s an entertaining website called We Want Plates that shows scores of examples.
I cite Quail in the Woods because its creator was Colin McGurran, chef patron of Winteringham Fields, and I was heading over the Humber Bridge, with some trepidation, to eat his food at the venue made famous over 30 years by Annie and Germain Schwab and where the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Michael Winner arrived by helicopter. The Schwabs earned two Michelin stars before retiring to live the good life in northern France.
So it was some act to follow when McGurran bought Winteringham in 2005. Within a year, starry, young head chef Robert Thompson had moved on. His replacement came and went so McGurran rolled up his sleeves and started cooking himself. When I visited in 2008 the food was mostly very good, though service groaned a little, something Gordon Ramsay trashed him for when they filmed an episode of Ramsay’s Best Restaurant. He later got knocked out for refusing to take Ramsay’s advice to reduce the front-of-house team.
There are still armies of staff and, like the Schwab days, guests are still greeted in the car park and seated in the garden or inside among the acres of velvet and damask. It took some time for a member of the platoon to take our drinks order but we were soothed by three excellent snacks: beetroot meringue filled with foie gras; a cheese- filled tuille; and an elegant sausage roll with a dab of brown sauce. We declined the discreet upselling of blinis with smoked salmon and caviar at £14 a pop, being ever so slightly made to feel like cheapskates for declining.
There was ample spending to come. The choice at lunch is a three, four or seven- course menu starting at £45 and rising to £59.50. In the evening, it’s a no-choice seven or nine-course “surprise” menu at £75 or £85 per person. Add a wine flight (£59.50 or £65 per person) and in for a penny, in for an additional cheese course (£10) and a glass of port (£7) and dinner for two with service and all the trimmings can see you waving goodbye to £400. We settle for the three-course lunch.
Our pre-starter soup continues the high calibre of the snacks, sweet tomato with a leaf of mildly ascetic red veined sorrel and a palate-confusing mustard ice cream delivering hot and cold, sweet and sharp all in the same mouthful – excellent.
A starter of cod cheeks with three tiny cubes of tempura pork belly and an oyster sauce is another successful adventure. A modern take on the much-derided surf that the kitchen pulls off superbly if sparingly. It would be equally hard not to like a little plate of truffle linguini with shitake mushrooms and mushroom foam. It’s heady with truffle – oil I think – and very good. Both disappear all too fast.
Duck with pistachio crust, marinated cherries and pistachio puree is fine if not sensational. Herdwick lamb is better – the lean loin and even tastier lamb belly is matched with creamy pomme puree and discs of pickled turnip for crunch and sharpness and a few dabs – again, I’d have liked more – of mushroom puree.
My grumble here is of more upselling – with side orders this time. “Do we need one?” I asked when we were suggested them at the point of ordering. To which we got that most enigmatic of responses: “It’s up to you.” So, we order rosti potato (£3.95) and then lo the lamb arrives on top of a healthy portion of mashed potato.
At dessert a vanilla panna cotta with some crunchy rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet fails to wow but the chocolate soufflé is a lovely thing. Baked to a well-risen wobble, light as air and deep within its depths a rich chocolate ganache served with a banana and passion fruit sorbet.
It may seem unfair to be still comparing today’s restaurant to the Schwab era but then again McGurran has committed himself to upholding their legacy. Hardly anybody could touch the Schwabs at their peak and the current kitchen is no exception.
It is safe to say, however, that if you want a special occasion meal at very special occasion prices, then Winteringham Fields still delivers sophisticated food in a swish and cosseted setting. Heavens, there’s even an upholstered stool beside each table for the ladies to rest their handbags.
And for those who don’t care to fight their way through the undergrowth to eat their food off tree bark, I am pleased to report that our meal was served on round white china plates. Remember them?
Winteringham Fields, 1 Silver Street, Winteringham, North Lincolnshire, DN15 9ND. 01724 733096, winteringhamfields.co.uk. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 12-2pm & 7pm-9pm. Price: lunch £125, dinner £400 for two inc wine and service.