The Moat House
Acton Trussell, Staffordshire
This is one of those places where you prepare
yourself to be disappointed.
It's just off the M6. It's part of a small chain. It does weddings and other functions - and apparently lots of them. It's in Staffordshire. The restaurant is in a conservatory. The menus have a mid-meal sorbet. None of which augurs well for a decent meal.
Things don't start at all well. To get to the restaurant from the room, we have to wander down some anonymous lengthy corridors (with effective motion sensors switching the lights on and off) through reception and are then confronted by a raucous party of women (hundreds of them, it seemed) getting boozed up before heading into their function room for their Christmas dinner and disco. They formed a pretty impassable obstacle, so I returned to reception to ask if there was an alternative route to the restaurant, but the only alternative was to go outside into the icy cold. So it was down to elbows out and gentle shoving (as none of them responded to "excuse me") to get them to allow passage, which they didn't seem too like. This is not an ideal way to get me into a good mood ...
Having finally got through the horde, it was then a lengthy trek down more corridors, including an unheated stretch, before we finally made it through to a somewhat rustic looking room with bare brick walls, lots of tables, mostly occupied, blackboards of specials, and a long pub-like bar with staff who were jolly good at ignoring customers. I had a vague notion that I'd read that the restaurant was in a conservatory, so finally nobbled a woman behind the bar and asked if this was the restaurant. No, you have to keep going on through that way.
Eventually we came to the restaurant, having passed (thanks to crap design by the architects) an otherwise empty room, that the next morning would turn out to be where they set up the (impressive) continental breakfast buffet. It is a large conservatory, with a couple of very large round tables seating nine covers each. Conservatories in winter tend to be chilly, so not only was the central heating on full blast, there were also a few butane heaters, which always give more of a warehouse ambience to my mind.
Tables are nicely set, though the black (possibly very dark navy - the lighting was a bit dim) napkins seemed a bit of late 80s throwback. Fortunately they weren't tucked into the glasses.
Orders for aperitifs are taken. But despite the person (probably sub-manager in the hierarchy) who took the order repeatedly walking past the table, it took an absolute age for them to arrive.
The structure of the menus felt a touch prescriptive. We'd have been happy with a lighter meal of starter and main course, but there was no à la carte, just a Christmas menu (yawn) with 3 courses for I think just under £30, a "gourmet" menu (3 courses for £45ish I think) and two tasting menus, a vegetarian one for £40 and one with meat for £50. Sheer economics suggested the tasting menus would be best value, and the vegetarian tasting menu was a very strong contender, not just for economical reasons: it read very well. Not that we were feeling entirely confident in the kitchen's abilities. But the lure of scallops, foie gras and fillet steak for just ten quid extra could not be resistable. A selection of wines by the glass was an extra £30, which seemed reasonable value, and it would have been difficult to find a single bottle to suit all the dishes.
The basket of bread that was brought to the table looked dull, and indeed the bread was dull.
Then a demitasse arrived: "your amuse bouche with the chef's compliments." No, it's not with the chef's compliments, it's included in the price: it says so on the menu. The demitasse contained a pea velouté with a mint foam. Oh well, this should be the pointer as to the quality of what's to follow. Maybe it'll be stunning and defy our expectations. Unfortunately, it was not surprisingly good. The foam was ok - nice and fresh, without being toothpastey. But the soup had a bit of a grainy texture that I didn't take to.
Next came a glass of 2009 Anakena Single Vineyard Pinot Noir A small glass, the size of the measure. Oh doom. No nose, no flavour from the nasty glass. I stole the big glasses off the next table (which was, I hasten to add, unoccupied) and decanted the wine. Massive improvement.
There are bright red fruits on the nose with some peppery notes, both peppery oak spice and green bell peppers.
Nice, correct palate. A pleasant pinot noir. It improved greatly with time, even a brief time. 87-88/100
The pinot noir was served with the first substantive course of the menu, some balls of Ragstone goats cheese that had been very neatly panéed and very accurately fried. This was accompanied by a lovely beetroot moussey quenelle, some pea pannacotta cubes and mi-cuit tomatoes, with a bit of faintly balsamic oil dressing. All very nicely done, and all very nicely put together into a very harmonious dish. A good starter course. Somebody knows what they're doing here.
Then drinking the wine with it, and it's clear somebody really knows what they're doing here. It's a really good match - very intelligently chosen.
Then an even smaller glass, this time containing NV? Chevalier du Pastel Sauternes
The titchy glass kills the wine. A bit of wine-rinsing of the bigger glasses fixes that. The nose is full of apricots stuffed with marzipan and some orange notes. It's quite rich and sweet on the palate with a bit of a cloying feel that the rather sour acidity doesn't quite balance out. But it's not at all bad for a (presumably) cheap Sauternes. 85/100
Again, as with the pinot noir and the goats cheese dish, it's a good match with the dish, and the combination brings out a bit more in both wine and food, than they have on their own. And you can't ask any more than that of food and wine matching.
Sauternes at this stage in a meal can only mean foie gras. Sometimes it's a bit of a lazy choice, but on this occasion it worked. All the more suprising as this wasn't a terrine of foie gras (which is where I think Sauternes - and SGN - work very well), but a large roundel of seared foie gras that was topped with some amaretto crumbs and served with some rather otiose pea shoots and some very neatly turned, precisely caramelized apples, which were very worthwhile.
The next wine came in large glasses. It had been the same young chap who'd brought all the wines and he felt obliged to explain that he'd noticed us swapping the wines into bigger glasses, and had taken the liberty of putting this wine into proper glasses for us. I was quite impressed by this and asked who was responsible for the wine selections. He really seemed barely old enough to be drinking, but he said that it was him in consultation with the chef who worked out the matches. So I congratulated him on his selections and let him get on with explaining the next wine, 2009 Ferme Julien Côtes du Luberon Blanc. He was reeling off the grape varieties and, bless the poor lad, included "beurre blanc" in the blend. Err, no. That's a sauce. Do you mean bourboulenc? Aargh, yes. I can never pronounce that properly!
It's got a nice, fresh, melony-lemony nose somewhat reminiscent of dealcolised Cognace. In the mouth, it's quite crisp and fresh but with some marsanne-roussanne richness more evident on palate. Simple, fresh, clean. But it's not completely without interest there too. It's only a simple wine, that doesn't quite live up to its billing on its own. 87/100
It'd be a nice wine for a richer shellfish dish, I noted. Which is handy, as it was served with some seared scallops, that had been lightly dusted with a touch of curry, some dried cauliflower, some cauliflower beignets and a sauce which seemed to have a touch of lemon scenting it. Another nice dish, all the elements nicely done, and blending into a harmonious whole, and that touch of lemon made the wine sing. They might not be earth shattering wines, but the continuing excellence of the matching suggests that it's no fluke, and this young waiter knows his stuff. He was a bit of a star really, with that thing that's rare in so many British waiters, especially in the provinces: he's interested. I hope they nurture and train him: he could be a top-notch sommelier in time.
Next came the 1980s horror, the mid-meal sorbet. To be seasonal, it was a mulled wine sorbet. It was well made, with a good texture, but ... why? I'd just had those nice scallops and a refreshing white wine: I didn't need my palate cleansed, as if anyone ever did.
It also meant, of course, that when the next wine came, I needed to wait for the food. This was a piece of good fillet steak, rare as requested, though a bit more of a sear wouldn't have gone amiss. This came with a croquette of braised shin, salsify, mushrooms and rather too many sweet-tasting roasted garlic cloves. All nicely done, but not as impressive as the foregoing dishes. Despite the dish having quite sufficient vegetables with it (there was some potato beyond what surrounded the shin and some cabbage too, I think), a side dish came with some incredibly buttery mixed vegetables. I like butter. It makes everything better. But this was really just a bit too much.
This was served with 2008 Malbec Reserva, Pascual Toso
There are big, syrah-like roasted meaty notes on the nose, with coffee & chocolate torrefaction and some intense, savoury black fruit. Good palate. It's powerful, meaty and fairly densely knitted, apparently with some age, though that could be the result of coming from a bottle that had been open overnight. 88/100
Naturally the aspirations of this place are such that it needs to serve a pre-dessert. Rather like the amuse, this was weak, suggesting to me that they are thinking about these too much as freebies rather than as a chance to show off with a little morsel. This was an apple custard crumble shot glass. The custard was a bit heavy and overset, but a good crunchy, crumble topping. Just a bit too dull, really.
The wine for the real dessert was a bit predictable, but none the worse for that. 2007 Quady Elysium 88/100. The nice sweet berry fruit worked well with an excellent chocolate fondant, which was served with an equally excellent almond parfait. The chocolate fondant was rather thinner walled than many (if you see what I mean) with a perfectly liquid centre. When I ordered I meant to ask if it were possible to have a different dessert than the one on the menu, as I'm not that mad keen on many chocolate desserts, but I was glad I forgot, as we agreed this was one of the better examples of this ubiquitous dish.
So from an inordinately unpromising start, this turned out to be a rather better meal than we'd maybe arrogantly presumed it was going to be. While the proximity to the M6 means there's a little traffic noise weedles its way into the bedrooms, it also means it's very easily reached. The location just outside Stafford makes it a very convenient overnight pit-stop for if you don't want to make north-south journeys in one leg.
Breakfast in the morning was fine, with good eggs, bacon and a particularly good sausage, though the fried bread was overcooked. In contrast to the bread the night before, viennoiseries were good. Rather less feeble coffee would, however, have been welcomed.
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Last updated: 27 Jan 2011