Rudding Park is a difficult hotel to categorise. At its heart is a Grade I-listed Regency house, surrounded by 300 acres of parkland. This stunning building would be the perfect setting for the hotel’s main entrance and centrepiece, a northern take on The Pig’s brand of characterful, contemporary country hotels perhaps.
Instead, however, the house is used only for weddings and events. Overnight guests are relegated to a conference centre-style extension at the back of the house (soon to be joined by another modern addition in the shape of a state-of-the-art spa). The design of the hotel’s communal spaces and bedrooms is, therefore, surprisingly corporate. And yet the hotel is often booked out.
There is one very obvious reason for that (apart from the pragmatic pricing and extensive golf facilities): the staff. Under the guidance of personable Portuguese manager, Nuno César de Sá, the hotel team is both efficient and charming. As I walked to the reception from the car park a passing member of staff offered to carry my case and that good first impression lasted throughout my stay. At Rudding Park people provide the much-needed soul that the architecture sometimes lacks.
As with much of the rest of the hotel, Rudding Park’s bedrooms aren’t going to win any awards for their decor. More in the style of an upmarket chain hotel than an individually owned property, the rooms are boxy and inoffensive, with solid, sensible furniture that looks as though it’s been sourced from a large hotel furniture supplier. The few elements of personality in my bedroom were a high-backed leather armchair, a red-corded table lamp and, in the bathroom, some gleaming bronze tiles.
Nor are the amenities wildly exciting. The very basic selection of Molton Brown toiletries in each bathroom feels rather dated. And, in these times of local and seasonal, why supply Kentish apple juice in the minibar rather than Yorkshire juices? And why charge £2 to upgrade the (free) packeted biscuits to freshly baked ones?
What the rooms lack in imagination, however, they make up for with practicality. Beds are large and comfortable. The soundproofing works brilliantly. And there are none of those small niggles that often marr a hotel stay (sockets are sensibly stationed by the bedside for night-time phone charging, wifi is free and reliable and bathrooms are fitted out with powerful showers, plenty of hooks for towels and – hallelujah – a proper shelf for washbags).
The main dining room at Rudding Park is The Clocktower, a 2 AA rosette restaurant in the centre of the hotel. I couldn’t get a table on my visit but I did have a cheese and herb omelette at the bar and it was good: nicely salty and crisp on the outside, wobblingly soft inside and served with a side order of sautéed seasonal greens from the hotel’s kitchen garden – a buttery, crunchy mix of fresh beans, kale and spinach.
But neither of those options are the best reason to eat here. The real hot table is Horto, a pop-up residency that opened earlier this summer in an unlikely spot above the hotel’s golf academy.
Part of the magic is the discrepancy between the restaurant and its surroundings. To get to it, you drive into a car park beside a driving range and wander through a shop laden with golf gear to reach some stairs. There, a graffitied sign points upstairs where another world waits.
In a space more design-conscious than the rest of the hotel – dark grey walls, black Modway stencil chairs, rustic wooden tables, pot plants in tiny copper pots and a huge graffiti artwork – chef Murray Wilson (newly poached from olive’s other favourite Harrogate dining room, Norse) and his proficient young team serve a seven-course tasting menu that lets just-picked ingredients shine (there’s no à la carte but they’ll tailor the menu to likes and dislikes with a bit of warning).
The just-picked ethos is a vital component of the concept. As the restaurant’s name suggests (Horto is Latin for kitchen garden) the focus is on the hotel’s kitchen garden. Over 100 different herbs, salads, edible flowers and fruits are grown here by Rudding Park gardener, Adrian Reeve and while guests are free to explore the garden during the daytime it is primarily there to provide supplies for the hotel’s restaurants.
My meal began with dense, springy sourdough, and three different butters – goat milk, Lincolnshire Poacher (so light on the cheese I could barely taste it) and roast chicken – served stylishly on little Japanese-style ceramic dishes.
I would happily have eaten the lot as supper in itself but, before I could fill up too much, the bread was followed by a trio of ‘snacks’. First, a tiny pot of whipped mozzarella, slicked with olive oil, a scattering of linseeds and a crunchy sliver of dried, incredibly sun-ripened-tasting tomato (sometimes the simplest things are the most delicious).
Then came beef tartare, rolled in a nasturtium leaf and celeriac with a little side dish of charred rosemary served alongside just for the smell of it. Part Vietnamese-spring roll, part posh vine leaf this was deliciously fresh, the bitter nasturtium and celeriac giving the roll a nice crunch before the salty hit of beef. Last in the trio was a silky sliver of pickled, barbecued mackerel served with a rhubarb granita and little balls of compressed cucumber.
Other courses on my visit (the menu changes regularly) included ultra slow-poached hen’s egg, with duck ham, Parmesan and dashi, and an unctuous squab pigeon dish, the meat a trio of confit leg, smoky barbecued breast and an immaculate little crunchy lollipop, that last one dramatically speared by a claw. Also part of the dish were tiny roast beetroot, onions, mushrooms, jammy bilberres and a Pedro Jimenez sherry sauce, the richness adding a sudden change of culinary pace.
Other hits included a meltingly soft, poached sea trout with charred garden leeks, parsley purée and a fresh but creamy lemon sauce that had just the right hint of sweetness. So much so that I was tempted to gulp the leftover sauce from the jug but, in the interests of saving space (and dignity), left it on the table.
The standout dish, however, was Whitby crab with broad beans, pea sorbet, buttermilk and horseradish granita, pea water and chive flowers. The simple pea sorbet was the star of the evening’s show, an intense hit of fresh-from-the-kitchen-garden flavour.
In all, this was the most well balanced tasting menu I have tried. Enough to fill up on but not overly long, there was also a real variety between each of the different courses.
As with most tasting menus, there were a few misses alongside the way. The elements I enjoyed the least were the cheffiest ones. Wilson has a natural instinct for drawing out flavours and rhubarb was a clever choice to serve alongside mackerel but, while the fish was perfectly cooked, I’d rather have eaten it without the icy chill of a granita.
Desserts, too, slightly missed the spot for me. With the first dish, I was invited to walk over to the prep station to watch a frosty coconut shell being moulded by liquid nitrogen (it was then served with a barbecued pineapple cube, an almond ‘crumble’ and a squirt of caramelised white chocolate); delicious but I can’t be the only person who wants to enjoy a meal out without audience participation (I get plenty of that in my own kitchen).
With the second dessert, an elegant riff on black forest gateau, cherries and mint (another inspired flavour pairing) were served with a chocolate ball injected with kirsch that didn’t quite work – the chocolate was too cold and too hard and the kirsch was frozen solid rather than molten.
The meal was swiftly back on track, however, with the petit fours. A beautifully light and fresh end to the meal, these were an apple and coriander marshmallow and a little cube of fennel-flecked fudge.
With food this good it’s little wonder that Horto’s run has been extended until the end of the year, and that there are plans to install it in a permanent restaurant space within the hotel’s new spa building next year. All the more reason to go now, before just a little of that pop-up magic gets smoothed, polished and ironed out in a more formal restaurant space.
The drinks list at Horto is as carefully put together as the food. The usual suspects (G&T, rum and ginger ale) are perked up by the use of artisan spirits and mixers. Then there’s a carefully chosen range of craft beers (including two brewed in nearby Dishforth), a short but impressive range of old and new world wines (bottles are much better value than wines by the glass) and four cocktails which, like the food, owe a debt to the garden (try a Garden Fizz – Prosecco laced with lemon verbena – for a modern, garden-to-glass twist on a Bucks Fizz).
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