Swinfen Hall’s Four Seasons restaurant is making waves with its fresh approach to fine food, making it perfect as a dining destination for any occasion, says Amy Norbury
Now you’ve probably heard of Swinfen Hall – situated just outside of Lichfield, this stunning Georgian manor house is something of a local landmark. But did you know that the hotel’s Four Seasons Restaurant is, on paper, the very best restaurant in Staffordshire? And that you don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy a rather top notch meal there?
Swinfen Hall For Seasons is the only restaurant in Staffordshire to have been awarded three AA rosettes, and the first restaurant in the county to achieve this honour since 2002. To put that in perspective, other local three rosette eateries include Michelin-starred Adam’s, Simpsons and Purnell’s in Birmingham.
It’s quite an achievement, but when you meet ambitious head chef Ryan Shilton, it’s easy to see why. Just 24 years old, Ryan has flair, creative ability and a great palate and his dishes reflect his belief in first class produce, simple flavour combinations and precise execution.
Ryan first joined the team at Swinfen Hall back in 2011, and was promoted to sous chef in 2013. In January 2015 he moved to Hampton Manor to work with Rob Palmer at Peel’s Restaurant – now proud holder of a Michelin star. When the top job became available at Swinfen in two years ago Ryan was first in line, easily beating all other contenders in the cook-off.
So when Ryan invited J’AIME over to sample the menu for ourselves, we more than happy to join him and the team at Swinfen for what proved to be an evening of superb dining in style.
Swinfen Hall has an innate sense of grandeur, from the sweeping tree-lined driveway which leads up to the beautiful building to the high ceilings with their elaborate chandeliers and the rather splendid oak-panelled restaurant, it really is a place where you can feel like lords and ladies of the manor.
But there’s also a truly warm welcome, from the roaring fires which do a grand job of keeping the chills at bay during these chilly winter months to the friendly greeting and exemplary service which has a way of making you feel right at home in amongst the grandeur.
We were shown to the lounge for pre-dinner drinks, enjoying a perfectly chilled glass of champagne and a well-made Old Fashioned from the cocktail menu while basking in the glow of the fire. A chef’s snack of crispbread topped with ceps and parmesan whetted the appetite for things to come.
The restaurant offers both an a la carte menu and a selection of tasting menu options, with either five or nine courses and vegetarian options. Produce is kept seasonal and local; the kitchen has a 100-acre larder on the doorstep in the shape of Swinfen Hall’s own Victorian walled garden, which produces an abundance of organically-grown vegetables and herbs as well as a wealth of soft and hard fruits, providing a veritable feast of pickles, preserves, jams and jellies. The 45-acre private deer park contributes first-class Sika venison for the restaurant and there is estate-reared lamb and hogget courtesy of a small flock of rare-breed Manx Loagthan sheep. Elsewhere, Swinfen champions the best of local suppliers including Lichfield’s own Shining Stone for coffee and Bore St Bakery for amazing sourdough and other baked goodies.
In order to get a well-rounded view of the Four Seasons’ offerings we opted for the five-course menu, priced at £60 a head, and were duly shown to our table in the restaurant to begin our culinary journey. As a handy aide memoire, the staff had popped a menu card on the table alongside the bottle of Argentinian Malbec we’d ordered and a delicious platter of warm Guinness bread with truffled beef fat, which was so good we couldn’t resist seconds.
The first course, which was described simply as onion, spelt and blue cheese, was a delectable take on a risotto, with the spelt creating a lighter dish than the usual rice and the blue cheese adding a nice punch to complement the sweet onion. It was a very tasty morsel indeed, and one which set a high bar for the courses to follow.
Happily, the standard remained just as high for the next dish, a beautifully cooked piece of Creedy Carver duck topped with salted plums and a drizzling of soy. The duck was perfectly pink and oh-so-tender, while the sharp sweetness of the plums and the salty soy created a lovely balance of flavours. It was, proclaimed my husband, the tastiest piece of duck he’d ever eaten – and I was in agreement.
I’m a huge fan of scallops, so the Orkney scallop with celeriac and bacon crumb really hit the spot for me. The sizeable scallop was sweet and succulent with a lovely sear, and again the accompaniments worked to bring out the very best in the main ingredient – smoky bacon and slightly pickled celeriac both adding a crunchy textural contrast.
Ryan popped out of the kitchen to deliver a surprise snack in between courses of a Swinfen venison hotdog; a delicious mouthful with added an element of fun to the proceedings.
The main event was the dish which had initially caught my eye, and it more than lived up to its billing. A perfectly rare piece of Staffordshire beef was adorned by a barbecued lobster claw, which brought a delicious smoky sweetness to the dish. The accompanying carrots done three ways elevated this humble garden veg to something simply sublime.
A picture-perfect dessert of caramelised banana with chocolate sponge and miso ice cream was just sweet enough to satisfy those post-dinner sugar cravings – the miso ice cream was, in particular, a triumph.
The menu as a whole was thoughtfully constructed and wonderfully executed to give you a true taste of what the restaurant has to offer, and as word continues to get out the Four Seasons is destined to become a dining hotspot in its own right. With a first-class chef on board and a front-of-house team who make guests feel special from the moment they set foot through the doors, Swinfen Hall’s culinary crown is hard-earned – and well justified.