The newly created kitchen garden is providing a bounty of produce for Abbots Court, where chef Alex Naik has created a “tasty and simple” menu. Russell Brown reports
Abbots Court describes itself as a rural retreat and that moniker is very fitting. The house is surrounded by a huge walled garden, woodland and open fields beyond – a proper Dorset country escape. Owners Jez and Niki Barfoot have aimed for a relaxed atmosphere, where guests can kick off their shoes and curl up on a sofa in the lounge. An elegant but simple dining room, together with a cosy bar, adds to that laid-back feel, which belies the serious intent behind the operation.
At present the restaurant serves residents only, with seating for around 14 guests. However, ambitious plans are under way for some serious expansion and the site will be open to non-residents in the near future. Ultimately, the plan is to build a new restaurant within the walled garden, with a fire pit, wood burner, semi-open kitchen and seating for 50 guests. Expansion of the seven bedrooms is also on the cards.
All this ambition is certainly reflected in the kitchen and by head chef Alex Naik. The restaurant in Winterborne Kingston has only been open for just over than a year, but it already has two AA rosettes and further accolades are surely on the agenda. Naik works with just one other chef, sous chef Jay Steele, and some part-time assistants to produce the à la carte menu, offering three choices at each course, and the five-course tasting menu, priced at £65.
Jez has done his time in the kitchen, too. He and Niki also own the Tickled Pig in nearby Wimborne as well as an events company, so he has a clear idea of what the food offer should be. “Seasonal, local, tasty and simple” are the words he uses to describe the menu, within which Naik’s creativity is given free rein.
A passion for foraging and local sourcing means Naik’s menus change frequently, with amuse-bouches and pre-desserts often changing daily. A basket of St George’s mushrooms picked on the morning The Caterer visited are destined for the amuse-bouche that evening.
The kitchen garden produce also drives the menu. When the Barfoots took on the property, the extensive garden was overgrown with brambles and trees that have since been cleared to make way for chard, globe artichokes, spinach, gooseberries, raspberries, dwarf fig trees, plums, apples, pears and much more. Naik says the hotel is aiming to be self-sufficient with vegetables and salads this summer. The garden is one part of a wider improvement project, which has seen a huge amount of work lavished on the house; part of the Drax Estate had laid empty for six years and was in need of considerable renovation.
Naik’s influences are wide ranging. He grew up in Scotland, has an Indian father and has travelled extensively in north and south America before moving to Dorset with the family. Various chef roles have included spells at the Crab and 1812, both in Bournemouth, but it was at an outside catering event that Naik met Jez, leading to his first head chef’s role at Abbots Court.
The current menu offer delivers a gross margin of 78%, no doubt helped by regular menu changes, the foraging and produce from the garden, while local produce includes Sopley Farm asparagus, Houghton Springs fish, Dorset with Love preserves and Webster Family Butchers meat.
The rib eye used in ‘beef, onion, barley’ (£25), is sourced from Webster in Bournemouth, with Naik describing the quality of the meat as “just outstanding”. Braised and shredded feather blade is used to stuff a shallot, served alongside 40-day-aged rib eye and beef stock barley.
A tomato gnocchi starter (£7) cleverly uses last year’s glut of tomatoes, which Naik has dried and turned into a tomato powder. The gnocchi is accompanied by braised fennel, tomato foam and wild garlic.
Among desserts, ‘coffee, stout, chocolate’ is a popular choice that showcases locally brewed beer, Bobolink coffee oat stout from Eight Arch brewery in Wimborne, and is presented to playfully resemble a cup of coffee.
Naik is frequently found to be taking food out to diners and answering their questions. “Chefs should be proud of what they are serving, not hiding away in the kitchen,” he says.
The kitchen at Abbots Court is at the start of an exciting journey, supported by the setting, garden, raft of quality local suppliers and enthusiastic owners.
From the menu
• Chilled chard and spinach soup, chervil, pine nut pesto £7
• Steamed Winterborne Houghton charr, citrus emulsion, wild garlic, new season asparagus £9
• Dorset lamb tartare, bantam hen’s yolk, carrot purée, Dorsetshire sauce pearls £8
• 40-day aged rib eye, braised feather blade, stuffed shallot, beef stock barley, resting juices £25
• Steamed lemon sole, Jersey Royals, nettle and clam broth, tempura nettle leaf £24
• Bay leaf panna cotta, thyme, rosemary, broken frangipane £8
• Eight Arch Bobolink stout cappuccino, Oreo dunking biscuits £9
Abbots Court, East Street, Winterborne Kingston, Dorset DT11 9BH