Matthew Norman wishes he could find fault with Morston Hall
Forgive the brutality, but do not waste another moment reading this review. Go straight to the box beneath the picture, dial the number, and book yourselves into Morston Hall. You may then, if you want, return to the text. But given that nothing in this world, with the sole exception of Libby Purves on Midweek, is more tiresome than 800 words of eulogistic gushing, I really wouldn’t advise it.
There is so much about Morston Hall, a building with Jacobean origins set in two handsome acres, that is so perfect it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s listen for once to Julie Andrews, and start at the very beginning with the jolly greeting in the car-park from a sweet South African girl, who showed me to a delightfully converted beamed attic with good furniture, a superb bathroom and the whole range of electricals (DVD, VCR, CD and many other initials).
The cute little touches were equally impressive, from the shelf of videos halfway up the stairs to the lovingly restored 1960s one-armed bandit sitting insouciantly next to the dining room, a bowl of sixpences left invitingly in its pay-out drawer.
If the warmth of the staff and the charm of the place were omens, the meal still exceeded expectations. I was joined by Sarah, a young journalist from the Eastern Daily Press putting together a dissertation on food writing, who was soon to be politely astonished by a certain critic’s ignorance. Sarah had rung the restaurant in advance to tell them she was a vegetarian, and as we sat over a drink and a bowl of caper berries in front of a colossal log fire in the stone-floored hall she was presented with a bespoke menu all her own.
The meal that followed was sensational. Thrashing around for something to whinge about, I suppose the dining-room is a shade drab, in the manner of a tastefully restrained 1950s country house (dinner here, by the way, is ‘7.30 for 8’), the walls a wintry shade of greyish blue Sarah described as ‘North Norfolk sky’.
But what a banquet this was. After a prawn and guacamole cancape (gruyere and guacamole for Sarah), and a small cup of intense butternut squash soup with a parmesan crisp, my starter of chicken and Roquefort mousse on sautéed pousse with sauce Choron (a tomatoey béarnaise) showed an amazingly light touch, given what an opinionated cheese roquefort is. Sarah’s roast tomato fondue was a deep brown, enticingly bubbling creation served with the tiniest of baby leeks and a poached quail’s egg.
Everything here seems to be done with passion. The wine list, for example, has been compiled with care and a bewildering lack of greed (we had an excellent Australian barbera, Meera Park Orchard, at £29) which was underlined by the novel enquiry, ‘Would you like mineral water or a jug of iced tap?’ Dinner, meanwhile, is £40 (making my room a net £105 for the night, including a majestic breakfast).
Next up for me was a wonderful baby Dover sole chargrilled and served with beurre noisette and capers, while Sarah was perhaps more impressed with the physical beauty of her beetroot and hazelnut salad on a nicoise terrine than its soul, although she liked the terrine’s smoky flavour. She then raved about the ‘remarkably good’ asparagus that came, along with fondant potato and baby carrots, with her wild mushroom lasagne. My roast best end of what the menu listed as ‘well-hung lamb’ – and you might as well be well hung as a lamb as a sheep; I mean, what’s wrong with a little preocicity? – was pink and rich, and came with a strong jus that verged on the Marmitey.
For the ethereal warm soufflé Rothschild with orange ice-cream that came next, I have no words, while Sarah’s eyes lit up at the plate of seven cheeses – four British and three French – and home-made biscuits that followed.
Well served by very friendly teenage boys, if you can visualise such mythical creatures, this was a simply stunning meal, cooked by Galton Blackistone, a technically outstanding chef who eschews rural hotels’ obsessions with pretension, and lets first-class local ingredients speak for themselves. What bleak Norfolk has done to deserve Morston Hall I’ve no idea. But if this is God’s idea of compensating the county for its global reputations, I implore the inhabitations of Kent, Sussex, Cambridgeshire and our other foodie-deserts to get cracking with the kinsfolk at once.