Despite occasional grumbles about its criteria, judging process and relevance, the Michelin Guide’s annual announcement of the list of restaurants worldwide that have achieved one-, two- or three-star status remains one of the most hotly anticipated, debated and dissected announcements in the culinary calendar. In the 2019 Guide announced in late 2018, a record 21 new stars were awarded to restaurants in the UK and Ireland. And although the bulk of our Michelin stars remain with London restaurants, 17 of these new stars were awarded to restaurants outside London – and one of them was Bath’s very first Michelin star, awarded to Olive Tree, which I visited late last year.
Chef Chris Cleghorn has been head chef at Olive Tree since 2013 and the Michelin star is the crowning glory in an illustrious career. Chris started his career at The Crown at Whitebrook with James Sommerin and was working there when the restaurant achieved a Michelin star. The style of food that James was preparing and the level of attention to detail required to achieve Michelin star standard laid the foundation and set the tone for much of Chris’s own cooking philosophy. Chris then developed his cooking skills under the guidance of threee celebrated chefs, all holders themselves of Michelin stars, namely Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck at Bray); Michael Caines (Gidleigh Park); and Adam Simmonds (Danesfield House). Although Chris has drawn upom the influence of these mentors, he has evolved his own unique culinary style which he describes as clean and crisp, combining the comfort flavours that he’s always loved, but with a modern twist. His focus on his relationship with local suppliers, and his commitment to seasonality, is evident in his menus.
Speaking of his menus, they are refreshingly well-priced. In a world where a Michelin-starred restaurant meal can easily set you back an eyewatering triple-figure sum per head, Olive Tree’s flagship 7-course menu is the most expensive at £82; the 5-course is £68; and Friday to Sunday lunch you can enjoy two courses for a very reasonable £26 or three for £32.50. Those with food intolerances or special diets will also be pleasantly surprised to find that Olive Tree offers vegetarian and vegan 7-course menus for £75 each; or a dairy-free 7-course menu for £82.
Olive Tree is situated in the Queensberry Hotel, a stylish, modern boutique hotel set in an elegant Bath Stone terrace near the Royal Crescent. The restaurant is on the lower level and the handsome room is decorated in tranquil tones of warm natural wood, pale grey and green accents. Tables are well-spaced and arranged around the room with a serving table in the centre. Prime spot is the single semi-circular booth which offers a view of the room plus the intimacy of a booth for parties of 2 or 4. Staff were unfailingly friendly, charming and knowledgeable, particularly our sommelier whose enthusiasm for the wines she matched so well was infectious. Whereas most other high-end restaurants would require the entire table to have the same tasting menu, Olive Tree were perfectly happy for my friend Inge to have the 5-course menu while I had the 7-course; and they were happy to allow substitutions between the two menus – a welcome flexibility that I wish more fine dining restaurants would emulate.
We started our meal with a glass of excellent Wiston English sparkling wine (incidentally, the wine used by HRH Queen Elizabeth II in the P&O Britannia naming ceremony which I attended a couple of years back!) with an amuse bouche plate containing shards of crispy chicken skin topped with smoked cod roe cream and chives; and truffled raclette profiteroles topped with a trompette mushroom puree. It has been a long time since I fell so deeply in love with an amuse bouche! The skin was salty and crisp to perfection, offset by the silky smokiness of the cod roe, and the profiteroles were light as air but given decadence by the truffly cheese flavours. I could have eaten these two morsels all afternoon. My first course was another success story: Orkney scallops with horseradish cream, pink grapefruit, pink grapefruit granita and dill. In a word: fabulous. The sliced raw scallops were fat and silky, but it was the inspired pairing with fresh and granita pink grapefruit that really impressed, both visually and on the palate. It is a dish that will linger in my memory for a long time and definitely a combination I want to experiment with at home. The dish was perfectly paired with a zingy 2017 Santiago Ruiz, an Albarino-led white blend from from the Rias Baixas D.O.C. on the Galician coast in Spain.
My next course was one that had caught my eye as soon as we opened the menu: tagliatelle with white truffle and 36 month-aged Parmesan. This was my idea of the perfect luxury comfort food – perfectly al dente tagliatelle in a cheesy broth with generous shavings of truffle. It was rich and earthy, yet elegant – and very moreish! This was paired with a glass of 2016 La Minaia Gavi, an fine example of this Italian wine from cortese grapes with pear and apple flavours and a beautifully balanced long finish. It was not overwhelmed by the rich pasta and brought out the earthy flavour of the truffles. For my fish course, I had brill on the bone with baby leeks, black garlic, mussels, mussel cream and nasturtium leaves. Brill is a white fish, sadly not commonly seen on menus but it is from the same family as turbot and has a meaty texture with large bones, easily avoided! My piece was beautifully cooked to flake easily off the bone and was delicious with the plulmp mussels in mussel cream. However, when I tried some of Inge’s fish course (stone bass with onion, artichoke, lardo and mushroom tea) I was instantly struck with such deep menu envy! My dish was good, but hers was sublime. The stone bass had been pan-fried to crispy-skinned perfection but it was the unusually earthy accompaniments that really impressed. Who knew that smoky pork fat cubes and artichokes worked so well with fish? A truly fabulous dish, and one I wish that I had ordered. My fish was paired with a beautifully rounded yet balanced 2014 Astrolabe Chardonnay from Marlborough.
For my meat course, I had a perfectly seasonal plate of fallow deer fillet medallions, roasted Jerusalem artichokes, kale, elderberries, and bitter chocolate shavings. Everything on this plate sang with the flavours of Autumn (and the design of a leafless tree on the plate itself reinforced the seasonal imagery!) The venison was seared outside and deep, even red through the middle; the artichokes were soft and beautifully caramelised; and who knew that bitter chocolate would work with venison? But it does! An excellent dish, full of gutsy flavours and well-thought-out pairings – all washed down with a wonderful juicy 2016 South African Pinotage by Ernst Gouws. Inge’s meat course was equally good, consisting of Woolley Park Farm duck two ways, barbecued cauliflower, sea beet and hazelnuts. On the side, there was also a dainty little finger of toast topped with duck liver mousse and little blobs of lemon gel. I loved the textures and flavours on her plate too – especially the crunch of the toasted hazelnuts, and the decadence of the liver mousse offset by the bright notes of lemon.
Next up for me was my cheese course – rather unusually not a plate of assorted cheese wedges but a toast finger topped with Tunworth, Autumn truffle, Madeira gel. Tunworth is a British camembert style cheese, mild and creamy, and deliciously accented by the shaved truffle and the sweet Madeira gel. Paired with this was one of my all-time favourite wines: a 2011 Trimbach Gewurztraminer “vendange tardives” from Alsace – a wine made from late-harvested grapes affected by botrytis and yielding a honeyed palate with hints of fresh apricots and nicely balanced acidity. My pre-dessert was delicate and refreshing, and oh-so-pretty: blueberry, mascarpone, lemon verbena and meringue. I loved the intense colour and blueberry flavour of the sorbet (which was perched on elderflower jelly) and the lightness of the meringues was lovely with the rich mascarpone. Both my and Inge’s desserts were absolute show-stoppers. Hers was baked milk chocolate on a peanut base with brown butter ice cream and salted caramel sauce – so many of my favourite things in one dish! I must admit that I felt yet another twinge of menu envy… but that only lasted until my dessert arrived: dark chocolate with yoghurt sorbet, green olives and olive oil. If Inge’s This had sounded like an intriguing if unlikely combination of flavours, but as soon as I took my first bite, I was smitten. The chocolate took the form of a near-flourless, fondant-like cake and the surrounding salty sliced olives were a perfect foil for its rich sweetness. I also loved the unusual wine pairing for the dessert course: Akashi-Tai Shiraume Ginju Umeshu, which is a Japanese liqueur made by preserving ume plums in sake. Amd to end the meal, we had petit fours of white chocolate filled with raspberry; and milk chocolate filled with salted caramel. And although I had coffee, I loved Inge’s fresh mint tea in a glass teapot with a pretty hourglass to tell you when your tea is ready to pour.
Both Inge and I agreed that this was one of the best meals we had eaten in a long time. The food was perfectly executed and inventive without sacrificing taste for novelty, and a number of the dishes will live on in my memory for a very long time. If you are in the vicinity of Bath or planning a trip soon, Olive Tree is highly recommended. Chris Cleghorn’s Seven menu costs £82 (add £57.50 for 6 glasses of matching wine); or his Five menu costs £68 (add £57.50 for 5 glasses of matching wine).
The Queensberry Hotel
4-7 Russel St
Tel: 01225 447928
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Olive Tree but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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