Portly gentlemen of a certain age, sitting on overstuffed leather sofas in hushed libraries, smoking cigars and reading The Times?
Perhaps some bare naked ladies in high heels and a sturdy pole? (c'mon Google, I know you're going to love that one!)
I can bet you won't think instantly about a refurbished stately home in the English countryside, with an award winning spa, a little cinema and a wonderfully relaxed restaurant! I know I didn't…
I was vaguely aware of Babington House as being part of Nick Jones's growing empire which includes Soho House, Shoreditch House and restaurants like The Electric Brasserie and Cafe Boheme (which I reviewed for the BBC's Olive Magazine earlier this year). But I had never bothered to find out much more about it as I had assumed that private members' clubs could safely be filed under the "not for the likes of me" tab. How wrong I was!
Babington was a medieval village, according to what historians have learned from excavations, but it is thought that the village was destroyed in the late 17th century to make way for a manor house and its surrounding park. The present Georgian building dates from about 1705, when it was built on the foundations of an earlier building for one Henry Mompesson. After many alterations and much changing of hands, it achieved its present incarnation of hotel and private members' club in 2000. It is also a Grade II* listed building.
One way to gain access to the plush yet relaxed house would be to book a stay in the hotel – at a price. But luckily for me, Inge lives just up the road and is a member, so after we had had our fill of the Bath Farmers' Market and I had got acquainted with her gorgeous kitty, we headed off to have lunch in the very lovely Babington House conservatory. It's a lovely, light room with a muted colour scheme – the real star of the show is the light pouring in through the glass on all sides, and the swathes of greenery outside. The menu is to the point, but still provided me with some agonising choices, which is just what I like my menus to do!
Up first on the left we have Inge's starter of grilled calamari with chilli and fresh coriander. Calamari is one of those things that can easily go either way – anywhere on the spectrum between butter and shoe leather. However, it seems that whoever is dealing with calamari in the Babington House kitchen knows precisely what they were doing, and the flesh was perfectly balanced between the two possible extremes. The real revelation was the perfect interplay between lemon, chilli and coriander leaf – the fresh flavours really sang and worked perfectly with the rich calamari.
For my own starter, I chose something which I really struggle to turn down if I see it on a menu: deep-fried courgette flowers stuffed with goats cheese. Mostly, these are not that big, so I was anticipating a small starter. Hah! Never assume anything. What arrived were the two giant specimens below. WOW! And they were absolutely scrumptious too, with feather-light crispy batter and flesh that was of a perfectly toothsome consistency. If I had any niggly criticism at all, it would be that there might have been more cheese, but that's probably just me being greedy
For my main, I went for the pan-fried calves liver on lentils, chicory and pancetta. Now liver and some sort of smoked pork is another of those heaven-sent combinations that can hardly be improved upon, and this dish was no exception. The chicory provided a welcome foil to the sweet richness of the rest of the dish, and the lentils added substance. Again, my only small niggle was that, although I asked for the liver to be on the rare side of medium-rare, only the thickest of the slices retained a central pinkness – the others were cooked through. But this could also have been a function of the differing thicknesses of the slices rather than actual cooking time. All in all, it was a delicious dish. Inge was far more virtuous than I was and opted for another starter in the shape of the Prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, fig & rocket salad. Each constituent ingredient was outstanding, but the creamy mozzarrella was my favourite. Inge's husband did exactly what my husband would have done and ordered the grilled ribeye steak with anchovies and garlic butter, and I must say that it looked like a carnivore's dream. I can also report that those with children need not worry – not only did staff provide pencils and colouring-in pictures, but there was also a good selection of sandwiches and excellent pizzas for less adventurous palates.
Embarrassingly, after all that I still felt that dessert was an option! But I have to say that I had by then largely reached my capacity for rich food, so my eye didn't really move much beyond the ice cream and sorbet section of the dessert menu, lovely as other options may have looked! In the end, I plumped for a very grown-up sounding gin and tonic sorbet. Wow – definitely something I want to try at home! It had a punchy flavour and a real taste of the drink, and I'm a sucker for alcohol in desserts :) Inge, on the other hand, went for something which I've mentioned before as being the ultimate test of whether or not an ice-cream maker knows ther stuff: pistachio ice-cream. If it tastes of almond essence, they haven't a clue. But if, as this one did, they taste of savoury roasted pistachios, you know you are on to a good thing - and we certainly were!
Service throughout was professional and totally charming, and many of the staff recognised and chatted to Inge – one of the perks of a members' club as opposed to a public restaurant. I was fortunate enough to be treated to lunch (thanks again, Inge!!) so I can't tell you what the total bill was, but the dishes weren't outrageously priced – about £7-£10 for a starter and £15-£19 for a main, which I thought represented pretty good value given the quietly luxurious surroundings and excellent food. Our post-prandial stroll through the house revealed some wonderful hidey-holes where one could spend a chilly afternoon – maybe on the plump sofas in the lounge, around the snooker table, or in the cinema. Alternatively, you could head out to the Cowshed (the on-site spa), the indoor or outdoor swimming pools… or if you are the type of madman who develops a penchant for self-flagellation after such a lovely meal, the gym
If I lived anywhere near Babington House, I would be making enquiries about membership as we speak. But, sadly, I don't so I guess I will have to dream up an occasion to justify coming here for a weekend of unashamed indulgence, and another meal in their lovely conservatory.
In brief: Like visiting an old friend who has a country manor and a cook who understands unfussy, ingredient-driven food.
Babington (nr Frome)
Tel. +44 – 01373 812 266
Fax +44 – 01373 813 866