Michelin-star chef Phil Fanning’s reputation and success lives or dies by the quality of the dishes he serves up at Paris House, the Woburn restaurant he took over earlier this year.
Phil is passionate about using local produce. Not only does he have high expectations but he also believes in supporting local suppliers.
The herbs, salad and fruit often come from outside the back door, the venison from the Woburn estate, and he has scoured the area to source top quality ingredients for a six-course spring tasting menu labelled Bedfordshire’s Finest.
The title is a little bit of a misnomer because he has sneaked across a few county boundaries in search of artisan-produced excellence. But let’s not quibble. Aylesbury Escargot has, arguably, the finest snails in England while enclaves in nearby Hertfordshire also yield rich pickings.
Phil came to Paris House as head chef four years ago and within months won it a coveted Michelin star. Earlier this year he and his wife bought it outright.
So a lot is riding on its success for him. He and his chefs are fussy about their food and rightly so.
Even Matthew Wiliamson, the Paris House sommelier, who provides his own liquid accompaniments to each course on the menu, is picky. While the UK can deliver the finest beers and white wines, we still can’t produce a decent red.
But we can come up with Kent nettle cider to rival any champagne and an inspired concoction, created by Matthew, that blends lapsang souchong tea with gin (actually it’s pretty strong on the gin with a smoky hint of tea. You’ll be blown away by the flavour.)
So, an invitation came and I had to accept. Just what could Bedfordshire’s finest and the region’s top chef serve up?
Without wanting to sound as common as muck, I’ve never eaten in a Michelin-star restaurant. That may have something to do with the prices. Bedfordshire’s finest menu costs £79 a head or £119 with wine by the glass for each dish.
Portion that out per course and it’s almost bearable. But there’s no getting away from the fact that dining of this quality is, for most of us, an occasional luxury.
But Paris House does have a regular clientele who think nothing of booking a return taxi from London just to enjoy a meal.
So what do you get for your money? It’s heavenly and mouth-watering. My dinner guest and I were greeted by Thomas at the front of house and treated to canapés and a glass of champagne. I could get used to this.
We were then taken to the chef’s table in the heart of the kitchen which is an experience in itself. You get to chat to the staff as they work and sit, entranced, as dishes are lovingly created with an artist’s eye for detail.
The dishes that leave the kitchen are as much a visual feast as a gastronomic one. I can’t understand why some chefs have got upset at patrons taking photos of their food. They are a work of art to be admired before being devoured.
We started with cured trout with rhubarb, nasturtium rapeseed oil , a tiny bowl of fish swimming in sauce that was served up with rolls using flour from Stotfold and a glass of white wine.
The smoked hens egg ravioli with celeriac, Ben’s bacon and black pudding (from Redborne School’s farm) came the heady tea followed by, what Phil call’s his Marmite dish.
You either love or hate the idea of eating snails but I’m game and was pleasantly surprised by the meaty taste of Aylesbury snails with chicory, onion and local herbs.
Matthew brought a Kent beer. Thank goodness I wasn’t driving.
Then came the venison with nut brown broccoli and Bedford’s Valerio ricotta. I had no idea that the estate’s various deer herds taste different to the discerning palate. The kitchen were using fallow deer and it was beautifully succulent.
My new best friend was back with a glass of red. After failing to find anything suitable Matthew opted for a delicious wine from the Lebanon. By now I was definitely getting a taste for haute cuisine.
A cheeseboard came next with delights such as Wobbly Bottom cheese from Hitchin and Wodehill Blue from north Beds. With them were little cubes of fruit jelly and scrumptious gourmet crispbreads.
Then came the wild chervil and some culinary magic as the soft paste was blasted with liquid nitrogen that turned it into instant ice cream.
Bringing up the rear was the desert- blackcurrant & beetroot cheesecake with ivy honey and oats.
It was then explained to us that the dish used only the first honey produced each year by local beeper, Wally Thrale, who is known as The Honeyman. The blackcurrants came off the estate and the oats from Stotfold.
My final alcoholic drink was the inspirational nettle cider from Kent.
We were replete.
Said Phil: “Without the commitment and passion of local producers it would be impossible for us at Paris House to produce exciting and innovative food and drink that we pride ourself on”.
Bedfordshire’s Finest menu is available until the end of April.