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Food Hotel: The Moorland Garden, Devon

The Moorland Garden Hotel
Yelverton, South Devon, PL20 6DA
01822 852 245
Cuisine: British
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Alex Shebar: We couldn’t decide which was better, the buttery pastry, the sweetness of the apples or the rich ice cream separately or all of it together on the fork.
 
On assignment to venture with my girlfriend and puppy into the English countryside, I had to wonder, as an American, whether it would be like it was in the movies: the sun shining, birds chirping, bugs lazily lounging as we dip our scones into clotted cream and fresh jam, chatting about how young and in love we are.
 
Turns out, yes. Exactly like that.
 
The day before, I had loaded my loved ones up in the car and began the journey from London to Devon to stay at The Moorland Garden Hotel. The GPS said it would take four hours but I knew this was less of a fact and more of a factpinion. It ended up taking us six, which included a stop in the middle for snacks and a near-hour of traffic when passing by Stonehenge (a thing that made my London-born girlfriend less than impressed: “They’re just rocks! Don’t slow down for rocks!”)
 
When we left, it was blue skies all the way down the road and around the corner, but as we made our way to the hotel, clouds swarmed ahead of our journey and rain began to fall. This was truly upsetting to the wedding party that had taken over the hotel when we arrived, and I saw one bride sulking sadly on the stone wall as her guests huddled inside. Some might have called it “ironic”. Not me, though. That’s not how you use it.
 
Beside, we had other matters on our mind like dinner to look forward to that evening at the Wildflower Restaurant, the hotel’s recent “Taste of the West” award-winning spot. And what a meal it was. Three elegant courses on a menu filled with locally sourced and produced options.
 
It impressed from the start, and I mean the very start.
 
“I know it sounds silly,” my girlfriend said across the small table facing the garden, “but the white bread is so nice.”
I took a bite. It was nice. Soft, crispy outside, fluffy inside.
“Too many restaurants don’t think about the bread. It’s always the first thing you try,” she continued.
 
Chef Bruce Cole agrees. The 45-year-old South African head chef told me he’s been cooking since he was 10 and knows how important freshness can be. It’s why he made some major changes when he took over the position, starting from that first thing on the table - making their own bread from scratch daily. “They were buying bread in and it just wasn’t great, and it was really such an easy change to make,” he said. “These kinds of things make a little difference as far as man hours are concerned but a major difference on the plate.”
 
Chef Cole is easy to like. He’s the jolly kind of chef (compared to the angry kind), smiling and laughing through our conversation. And when the food comes down, he visibly beams. It’s impossible to miss the passion he has for food.
 
So no surprise then that the rest of the meal was wonderful. We had salmon pâté with a well-balanced approachably fishy flavour, beautifully presented  in a glass container with its cap at a jauntily askew angle, daring you to scoop some onto that bread. For our other starter, we tried the duck burger (sans buns) that was some of the most succulent duck I’ve ever had. It made me wonder why more burgers aren’t made with duck. It was only marked down a bit due to the marmalade sauce, which was just a bit too tangy for the uber-savory meat.
 
Still, that freshness comes through with every bite. It’s a key element to Chef Cole’s cooking. “We’re not here to reinvent food, we just want to have really great produce, cooked really well,” he said. “Our signature is all local produce. A lot of restaurants don’t do it but it’s key to what we do.”
The Wildflower tries to buy as much as it can from a 20-mile radius, Chef Cole told me, in order to keep it fresh. He even uses social media like Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch with what’s coming in.
 
“One of my suppliers will link up with a producer and then they’ll tweet it off to me, letting me know there’s garlic coming in from Campton or fresh strawberries from the Tarmar Valley. It’s all about linking up with people, isn’t it?”
 
Can’t argue with that.
 
It’s clear Chef Cole not only can source his meat, but prepare it as well.  When my steak was placed in front of me for my main, a tiny forest of onions, broccoli and mushrooms had been foraged on top, nearly blocking the choice cut below. But what a cut. Melt in your mouth soft with a perfect tarragon jus, complete with giant chips stacked next to it like an edible Jenga set. My lady’s crispy pork belly, with sage dumplings and cider jus, was sweet and crunchy. We finished off the plates and then gave each other puppy-dog looks when we realised it was all gone.
 
As we waited for our dessert, I took a look around the restaurant. It’s a place of white linen and beautiful lighting. Statues of horses’ heads guard tables. Rod Stewart crooning covers of Cat Stevens’ songs on the speakers. My girlfriend put her finger on it first. “There’s no twist here,” she says.
 
Ah, I know exactly what she means. Coming from London, you’re always waiting for that chic factor, that thing that makes you go “Oh!” But with the wonderful simplicity of this spot, there’s no cheeky twist to be found. This is the kind of spot my mother, a woman of classic taste, would love. But that’s the point, my mother would love it. And so do I, actually. It’s serenity in a bottle, where that explosion of wow isn’t on the walls, but in the food.
 
The dessert comes down and it’s just as good. My girlfriend chose the apple tarte tatin with vanilla clotted cream ice cream and we couldn’t decide which was better, the buttery pastry, the sweetness of the apples or the rich ice cream separately or all of it together on the fork. I had the crème brûlée, which came with a fruit salad on top, complete with an edible flower. It was fun to crack open, and filled with delicious sweetness inside. I ate every bite, scraping at my bowl when it was gone (and for the sake of the article, I even ate the flower). The meal was £28.95 per person and truly fantastic. The restaurant deserved all the recognition it has received and, clearly, will continue to receive.
 
The following morning, our bellies filled with food, and our hearts filled with adventure, we set out to explore the surrounding area. We made our way to Plymouth to do what all good people in Plymouth do: drink gin. The Plymouth Gin Distillery is one of the oldest in the country and easily one of the most delicious. We learned how the gin was made, what botanicals were used (sniffing each bit, from juniper berry to cardamom seed) and, of course, drank some at the end.
 
I learned that the distillery was the last spot many of the pilgrims stayed before sailing off to the world called America. I liked the symmetry of it, them leaving to go there to start a new life, me coming to Plymouth to drink their gin. Circle of life.
 
We were also able to take a quick tour of the National Marine Aquarium with their head host, the epically named, Loveday Trinick, who took us on afternoon private tour of the deep. Not only were we able to stand under a swimming shark, but we learned there are octopuses in Plymouth Harbor. Who knew?
 
Neat fact, the Aquarium actually works with The Wildflower (and other restaurants in the area) to support Fish2Fork, which is all about encouraging sustainable fishing and eating in the area. That’s good eating.
 
Finally done and happy to come back to the hotel, we crashed. Us on the bed, dog on the dog pillow they provide in the Moorland’s dog friendly room. Ah, peace.
 
And, really, that’s just the thing you want coming out to the country for a stay and a meal. Earlier, at the gin distillery, I had overheard a beautiful conversation from two of the staff.
"We had a customer come down and said he wanted to bring people but only if we could make a Pornstar Martini,” one bartender sheepishly said to the other.
"No mate,” he replied. “That's in London."
 
That it may be, but there’s something about the beautiful simplicity of countryside living. And Chef Cole understands just that when it comes to his hotel restaurants.
“You can go to the best-looking hotel in the world, walk in, have the plushest doors and walls, have the best bed, everything like that, but if the food’s absolute rubbish, you won’t enjoy it,” he said with a laugh. “People used to never come here to visit us but it’s now a destination restaurant.
“Rather than a hotel with a restaurant in it”, he paused, then belly laughed again. “We’re now a restaurant with a couple of rooms.”
 
Alex Shebar is Community Director for local review site Yelp in London, which has all the best food, drinks and everything else to see and taste in the world. Check it out, it comes with a no rubbish guarantee.
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10 July 2014
By: Alex Shebar
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