First built as an Assembly Rooms, in 1769, what is now Abode Exeter but was for many years the Royal Clarence Hotel claims to be the ‘first’ hotel in England; a 1770 advert for it is the first recorded use of the word hôtel on these shores.
Thankfully, despite a recent revamp, many of the building’s period fittings remain in place (stained glass, lavishly monogrammed wood and metalwork and a spectacular lift, complete with internal concertina doors, among them). The modern fittings are less successful, their contract-furniture veneer jarring against such a genteel backdrop, but there are compelling reasons to stay at this 53-room hotel, as recent guest David Cameron would attest to.
Firstly there’s that heritage (it’s also said to play occasional host to the ghost of Walter Raleigh, whose father’s house once stood on the same site). Then there’s the dramatic location, with many of the rooms looking directly onto the city’s cathedral across the green (even if you’re not staying here, book in for afternoon tea in the Cathedral Lounge, pictured below, and you can enjoy the same panorama). But the main attraction is the hotel’s kitchen.
Under the direction of local boy turned star chef, Michael Caines, and head chef, Alex Gibbs, the hotel’s 2 AA rosette restaurant (top image) turns out immaculately prepared, seasonal, modern food, much of it sourced from the West Country. Go à la carte for dishes such as roasted quail with quail egg, herb purée and quail jus; terrine of confit duck liver and leg with rhubarb and toasted brioche; and stone bass with Thai puree, stir-fried mangetout and shitaki lemongrass foam.
Or, opt for one of two tasting menus (the more elaborate of the two can only be ordered by the whole table). There’s also a dedicated, and sensibly cheaper, vegetarian menu and, at lunchtimes, a bargain two-course menu. Desserts are classic crowd-pleasers: chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream, passionfruit crème brulée and pear bavarois with spiced ice cream.
As with parts of the rest of the hotel the one false step here is the design. With tables that look as though they belong in a chain coffee shop and paintings of fruit and veg as cheesy as an M&S food ad there’s little atmosphere. It’s an unfathomable waste of that period setting. Presentation, too, feels oddly dated, with wobbly glass plates and napkins placed on laps.
That flawless food, however, and personable service, means it’s a busy spot. Go now if you want to try Michael Caines’ menus without the Michelin price tag; the recent announcement that he is leaving the Brownsword Group to open his own country house hotel and restaurant in Lympstone means that, from spring 2016, his association with the Abode hotels will end and his Gidleigh Park replacement, Michael Wignall, will be overseeing menus in the Abode hotels – not exactly a step down but a change nonetheless.
(If you’re not after a three-course dinner, the food and drink line-up also stretches to a Champagne Bar, Café Bar and Grill and a pub, The Well House Tavern.)
As with the food, the focus with beers and soft drinks is on local, with a good range of guest ales and ciders from the South West (try the Devon Mist cloudy cider). The wine list is equally well thought-out; our glasses of Ridgeview sparkling wine and bottle of crisp 2013 Baronne du Cléray Muscadet Sevre et Maine went down very quickly.
Brownsword is a hotel group of two halves. On one side is a collection of stately old country house hotels (albeit some of them, like the Bath Priory, within urban surroundings) and, on the other, a handful of more affordable city hotels that come under the Abode label, including this one. Here, like that two-part branding, the styling feels like a split personality; Travelodge-style headboards and multi-panel bathrooms have been slotted into a building ripe with period beauty; rather than a glossy trout pout, we wanted to see the beautiful old wrinkles brought to life more sympathetically.
Beyond those first impressions, however, rooms are comfortable and practical, with great beds, powerful showers and, if you’re lucky, a view of the cathedral when you pull back your curtains in the morning.
A small but classy buffet includes all the usual suspects, from fresh pains au chocolats and fruit salads to cold cuts, yoghurts and prunes steeped in Earl Grey. Raspberry and banana smoothies served in little milk bottles, with candy-striped straws, were a nice addition. For a more substantial start to the day, there’s a menu of made-to-order dishes, from porridge and a full English to kippers and Eggs Benedict.
Words: Rhiannon Batten
First published: November 2015
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