Popular with the Arsenal football team, who train nearby, Sopwell House in St Albans is a grand, whitewashed Georgian country house set in 12 acres of gardens, with over 100 bedrooms, a spa, restaurant, informal brasserie, cocktail lounge and terrace. Food is in danger of neglect at such large hotels, but not here; on the contrary, recent arrival and executive head chef Gopi Chandran has worked hard to make his restaurant Sopwell’s biggest attraction.
It’s a modern British and European menu that focuses on perfecting traditional dishes, but with a small hit of the unusual. To start, for example, plump scallops with belly pork is made livelier with citrus oil, and marinated salmon with horseradish crème fraiche is that little bit more interesting next to a smooth and lemony caviar cream.
Mains – usually two meat, two fish and one vegetarian option – are safe but well executed: lamb cutlets with spring onion mash and ratatouille were pink and tender, while a chunky fillet of line caught sea bass, served with potato puree and Tenderstem, was pan fried to perfection, and not a second over. Perfect with a glass of Kung Fun Riesling. But beware, vegetarians… the only option, a kale and garlic risotto, was overly salted and not particularly imaginative. Desserts are the prettiest part of dinner – try apple and blackberry mille feuille with candied hazelnuts, or orange and cardamom bread and butter pudding if you’ve got the space.
Small, white-clothed round tables and soft lighting sets the scene for an intimate meal, with cosy couples making up the background hubbub. It’s also a high-ceilinged, airy room with plenty of room per table, so you won’t have to share your tête-à-tête with anyone else. Service is equally discreet and one of the best parts of dinner at Sopwell House, with waiters stealthily topping up glasses and anticipating your every need.
It has a warm, fuzzy atmosphere that encourages you to linger over dinner, and order that extra glass of wine. The rooms at Sopwell are pretty swish, too – great big pillowy beds, original windows, countryside views and shiny en-suite bathrooms.
Written January 2015 by Charlotte Morgan