11 Feb 2008

'A La Car'

DESPITE a racy owner, the recent tenure of an almost destructively passionate Chef, and critical interest from - perhaps appropriately - car insurance peddling cholestosaurus Michael Winner, Auberge du Lac retains a sense of quiet charm and relaxed dignity...
The brick dolls house of a former hunting lodge is set, as its name suggests, lake view, amongst weathered statues within the softly undulating sculpted golfing slopes of the Brocket Hall estate. Once the residence of 'Lord Charlie', 3rd Baron Brocket, the main Hertfordshire pile is now a residential conference centre.
'Recklessly passionate' former Directeur de Cuisine, Jean Christophe Novelli drove Auberge high on the culinary map from '02-'05, leaving under ambiguous circumstances.
On paper, Brocket and Novelli have similar characters. Both reportedly charming men have a taste for supermodels, television and being recognised as celebrities through it. Both have dramatically failed in business. And Brocket and Novelli are car fanatics. According to The Telegraph, Novelli 'used to do the trip from Charles de Gaulle airport ... at 150mph'. Lord B. notoriously sliced-up and buried a fraction of his classic car collection (three Ferraris and a Masserati), fraudently claiming their theft to financialy aid his falling kingdom...
But enough of the past. Now in the hands of a young Chef with a winning smile - Phil Thomson - Auberge feels settled, although considering most of its clientele are geriatrics, perhaps the pressure to innovate is gentle. It is to Michelin lambent rather than luminous, recognised in the '08 guide as being in the ascendant - a 'Rising Star'...
Under low winter sun, this idyllic location suits a leisurely lunch, which is reasonable, ample and cleanly and patiently executed. Evidence of this last attribute came from the fact that the lanky South African Maitre d', badgered perpetually by a pleasant but boring couple about GPS technique - '...when we asked our TomTom for a nearby restaurant, it used to guide us to MacDonald's, but the ViaMichelin has far better taste...' - never flinched ironically.
After brittle pastry sticks and briney Manzanilla in the beamed lounge where wafts of an open fire hung snugly, lunch was served in the bright conservatory downstairs. Accompanying a moreish selection of warm, fluffy, thoughtfully flavoured breads, I had prettily flecked (skin side up) delicately fried mackerel. The main course: seared then very slowly roasted pork loin, the perfect way to ensure a thick crackling crust. The desserts were attractive, but lacked poignancy of flavour. Maybe a traditional establishment like this is fearful of upsetting octogenerians with flash puds? Overly dense dark chocolate truffles followed with coffee too high on the caffeine Richter scale.
Lunch included two glasses of fairly banal wine from rising D.O. Murcia, with a chance to 'upgrade' to Fairview Sauvignon Blanc and Puglian Aglianico for a few extra £s. The main list read like a fastidous collector's cellar however (all first growths being represented). Highlights include Dom Pérignon by the flute (£19), various renditions of Grange, some tempting Greek, Austrian and USA bins, and a substantial interest in Super Tuscans.
Guado al Tasso ('Badger's Ford'), comes from the estate of another aristocrat. In Marchesi Piero Antinori's '99, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah blend, Syrah is initially Sherpa. From the Bolgheri amphitheatre of vines comes courgette, bitter cocoa flakes and sweet coconuts on the nose. On the fiercely expressive palate rounding tannins still necessitate sinewy shank. Perseverance yields additional notes of aubergine, a sprinkling of muscovado and capsicum. An impressive Ferrari of a wine which would benefit from a few years burying in the cellar. Identifiably Italian but lacking depth at this time. ['01 encountered HERE]
Pictured, the restaurant's own smokehouse used for the Home Smoked salmon.
Auberge du Lac - Hertfordshire. AL8 7XG. T. 01707 368888