In a nutshell
At first glance, everything in this honey-stoned country house hotel on the fringes of Bath is pretty much as it’s been for decades, from the ticking clocks and carefully plumped sofas in the library to the starched white tablecloths and synchronised cloche flourishes in the dining room. But appearances can deceive. There’s been a change of the guard in the kitchen that has had foodies smacking their lips in anticipation of some seriously exciting food.
The new man at the stove is 34-year-old Michael Nizzero, who was born in Belgium but has spent much of his working life in French kitchens. His star-studded CV includes not only the three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn at Bray where he worked alongside Michel and Alain Roux, but the Hostellerie La Briqueterie in France (where he won a star while executive chef) and most recently The Ritz (which he helped secure its first star). At The Bath Priory he steps into the clogs of Sam Moody, who won its restaurant a star after three years as head chef.
What’s he cooking
Unsurprisingly, Michael’s style is modern classical French (no sous-vide cooking here) but with a delicate touch and clean flavours. So you’ll find classic stocks and sauces, but also plenty of citrus – one of Nizzero’s hallmarks – to lighten and lift.
The starter on the six-course tasting menu, for instance, is Cornish crab on a bed of cucumber jelly and avocado. Woven through it is mouth-tingling lime, and on top are more citrus fireworks in the form of cherry-shaped bursts of grapefruit jelly with ‘stalks’ made of chives. Finished with sparks of marigold petals, slivers of pink-rimmed radish and furry purslane leaves, it’s seriously pretty.
The second dish is no less playful. With its Perigord black truffles (the last of the season) and French asparagus (the first of the season), it’s a clever meeting of winter and spring, showing that Michael’s seasonality antennae are second to none. Equally ingenious is the deconstructed pheasant egg, whose yolk hides under the disk of cooked egg white and explodes as you eat. Bracing bursts of lemon save it from being over rich, while croutons add welcome crunch.
There are Asian twists, too, as in the chicken consommé, where a chicken and lime dumpling bathes in a dark 48-hour chicken stock strongly infused with lemongrass and lime, along with an intriguing bed of cauliflower couscous.
Main courses, in particular, display Michael’s careful sourcing of ingredients. Fish comes fresh from Cornwall, saddle of lamb hails from Bristol’s Ruby & White butchers and poultry from Woolley Park Farm in Bradford on Avon just south of the city. In summer and autumn, much of the veg will be from The Priory’s own accomplished kitchen garden, but when I visit the baby purple sprouting broccoli paired with my lamb has been cut a few hours earlier at Growswell Farm just down the road.
What’s the room like/atmosphere
You’d probably be more likely to bring your partner or parents here, than a first date. The dining room is formal rather than funky and there’s a distinct lack of music. The bonus at lunchtime, though, is the dreamy views over four acres of gardens. If you want lighter, more casual, food, head next door to The Pantry, with its own bar and, in summer, sun-drenched terrace. Here you can order rib eye and chips or a classic moules frites, all cooked by the same kitchen team.
Menu must-orders and misfires
The poached wild brill was beautifully meaty and perched on a nest of seaweed and lemony fennel purée. A wave-like champagne emulsion, draping of parsley and garlic crust and concealed clutch of mussels and clams tasted so wonderfully seasidey (without being too salty).
The salted caramel fondant pud also needs a mention here. Skilfully avoiding being sickly sweet, partly thanks to a palate-cleansing banana sorbet, it was a great parting shot and well judged in size, too, after five generous courses.
Head sommelier Adam Willis has devised an optional wine flight to match the tasting menu. Otherwise, there’s a stellar list to choose from, including not only top Bordeaux and Burgundies and the usual big hitting Italian suspects, but plentiful offerings from other corners of Europe and the new world.
Standouts include the Swiss Domaine du Daley’s Chasselas (available by the glass), and the French Crôzes Hermitage Blanc – an appellation normally associated with red – which is paired with the tasting menu’s brill. The lightly oaked Saint Véran chardonnay, partnered with the pheasant egg dish, worked particularly well, its oak standing up to the asparagus and egg, and its acidity cutting through the creamy sauce.
What else did you like/dislike?
The restaurant service walks a perfect line between informative and intrusive, and we loved the fact that chef comes out, continental-style, to greet his guests. The a la carte cheese course, which includes some quirky local cheeses and has its own mini wine flight (including a white and a sweet white), is a winner too.
This is thrilling food, with a reasonable price tag, especially that of the set lunch, which is a steal at £30 for three courses (£25 for two). Michael is definitely a chef to watch, and we’ll be mighty surprised if the firmament above The Bath Priory doesn’t soon twinkle with a star once again.
The Bath Priory
Bath BA1 2XT
Words and food images by Clare Hargreaves / @larderloutUK