Army&You reviewer Andy Simms gets to the root of a long-standing food feud at one of the Midlands’ premier dining destinations…
WHEN it comes to dining, everyone has at least one chink in their armour; an ingredient – no matter how lovingly prepared or presented – that is capable of instantly wilting your appetite.
For this reviewer, that culinary kryptonite is beetroot. First sampled as part of a sad-looking primary school dinner, I’ve evaded it for the lion’s share of three-and-a-half decades.
Efforts by loved ones to break my beetroot boycott have been plentiful but futile. Regardless of whether roasted, boiled, juiced or pickled, the gaudy-coloured vegetable has been routinely rejected; its reputation as tainted in my mind as the salad plates it has stained.
Imagine, therefore, the evaporation of enthusiasm I experienced when spotting the presence of the purple-skinned produce as the sole starter of a four-course tasting dinner at Hampton Manor, which is located a short drive from the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham.
Until this point, my visit to the West Midlands had gone wonderfully well. Indeed, the 19th Century Manor – nestled in 45 acres of gardens and with interiors pitched as a home-from-home country retreat – is incredibly difficult not to warm to.
Family run, this “restaurant with rooms” has hospitality at its core and, as befitting a venue with its own master mixologists, serves its guests a difficult to achieve and rarely sampled blend of laid-back luxury.
The Manor, its guestrooms and public spaces are undoubtedly grand and well-dressed, but there is no hint of any upstairs downstairs divide present in this historic house.
Staff are smartly turned out and attentive without looking like extras from Horse Guards Parade and guests are encouraged to make use of the Manor’s reception rooms, which feature a tasting table at their heart.
Found in the lobby, this marble-topped oak centrepiece has been designed with conversation, as much as an opportunity to explore new organic wines and gins, in mind.
Convivial chat is also actively encouraged in Peel’s Restaurant – a salute to former Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, whose son built the Manor in his honour – where a long oak table can accommodate two family-sized parties while maintaining their privacy.
It was against this serene backdrop, and while savouring a whisky-based pre-dinner cocktail and canapes, that beetroot threatened to burst my Friday evening bubble.
Despite being in incredibly safe hands – Peel’s won its first Michelin Star in October 2016 and head chef Rob Palmer continues to wow diners with his best of British-inspired menu – the urge to skip a course was compelling.
Only a “don’t you dare” stare from my dining companion persuaded me from refusing the plate and so, with much trepidation, I was forced to face my foe in culinary conflict.
My strategy for survival was simplistic; be swift and use the accompanying matched Chardonnay as cover.
However, true to the old military adage that no plan survives first contact, I was caught off-guard by the reaction of my taste buds.
Beetroot it transpires should always be served with pear and a side of goat’s cheese (Bosworth Ash-flavoured) “ice cream”. Far from having my Achilles’ heel poked by the kitchen staff at Peel’s, I savoured every spoonful of their creation and then watched in disappointment as my partner did the same without proffering me a second taste.
This debut dish set the bar incredibly high and although the smoked eel with kohlrabi and samphire and mallard with turnip and damson that followed were equally sublime, it was a purple patch that will live long in the memory.
The Manor may already have a reputation as the Midlands’ premier dining destination, but it deserves special praise indeed for evoking an epiphany in this former beet berater. Beetroot is no longer a vegetable to be endured, but to be enjoyed.