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Combe House - Quintessentially English, utterly unspoiled

Combe House LogoSince our initial visit in 1999, we've been back twice, most recently  in June 2004. Lots of improvements have been made to the layout, decor and plumbing in the bedrooms. The old Georgian kitchen has been painstakingly refurbished and the original range restored to working order. It is used for special occasions and for private functions. Philip Leach, a Master Chef of Great Britain, is still in charge of the kitchens, such continuity is a rare asset these days. The hotel is run like clock work by the hands-on care and enthusiasm of proprietors Ken and Ruth Hunt

Margaret Powling, the well known West Country travel writer, has recently reviewed the restaurant again for us in September 2004. Click here for Margaret's review.

Our original review is still available below, updated with material from later visits. The prices and certain details were updated in June 2004.

Combe House - Dine Online Country House Hotel of Choice 2004

 Some friends suggested that we visit Combe House, which is in the very pretty village of Gittisham, just outside Honiton, itself about twenty minutes from Exeter on the London side of the A303.

They had enthused about how the hotel is set in several thousand acres of parkland. And how there's a palpable feeling of history that pervades the ancient house and estate which has existed for a thousand years dating back to the Domesday book and beyond. They warned that we might find certain aspects a little old fashioned, so we worried a bit about what the plumbing might be like - but that didn't put us off booking a two night weekend break.

We arrived, as one does on a Friday evening in winter: tired, late, fractious, and in the dark. But as we drove carefully over the cattle grids and saw the lights of the house beckoning across the rolling acres the tension already began to slip away. Combe House was beginning to work its magic. Even the news that our friends had been even more delayed than we and that dinner would not be until about nine o'clock could not dismay us. We were shown to a huge, comfortable bedroom with lovely antique furniture, and restorative tea and sandwiches arrived within minutes.

We needn't have worried about the plumbing. OK, so our bathroom, with its slightly bizarre wallpaper, was an odd shape, so obviously carved out of a too large adjacent corridor at a time when such alterations were expedient rather than luxurious or even well thought out. But the proportions and style of the bedroom had not been disturbed, and the bath filled up rapidly with very hot water any time we felt like a hot soothing tub. Best of all, it didn't feel in the least like part of an hotel. I know it's a cliché to go on about feeling as if you are in someone's home, but that really is the way things are at Combe House.

Combe House HallThe public rooms have a gorgeous air of decadent, slightly shabby gentility, like a faded dowager. It's extraordinary that people pay fancy decorators a great deal of money to achieve such a look, it's called "distressing" I believe. At Combe House you can enjoy the real thing.

There's a great hall with an enormous Elizabethan fireplace, a grand piano and very comfortable furniture into which you sink gratefully in front of a roaring log fire. I've just noticed that, since the picture on the left was taken, the soft furniture has been replaced by rather better pieces.

Chef Philip Leach is achieving miracles with a relatively small, but keen brigade. The menu is just the right length, with 6 or 7 different starters, mains and puddings. Every day sees a different chef's special dish - yesterday it was monkfish tail stuffed with a crab mousseline. Looking carefully at the dishes on offer I concluded that every spare moment of the day must be spent in preparing those little touches that define the difference between competence and brilliance. So, for instance, care had been taken not only with a properly home-made light and fluffy boudin blanc made from chicken and wild mushrooms, but with the rich and caramelised onion tart that it was set upon. A crab raviolo was perfection in itself, but the dish was made by the compote of fennel and tomato. And who would have thought of making little scotch eggs out of quail's eggs - surrounded not with ordinary old mincemeat dusted with those terrible yellow bought-in breadcrumbs - but with a gamey forcemeat made from local wood pigeon, dressed with a star anise flavoured jus? Any competent chef can sear excellent plump scallops, but how about setting them on caramelised oranges? The crisp wafer of caramel is crunchy, and the palate is immediately refreshed by the tang of orange, a flavour that goes with scallops like a marriage made in heaven. Was the further addition of a mingling of vivid green basil oil and bright red pepper oil going a little too far? No, it added the visual finishing touch whose flavours added another dimension. These dishes were all first courses, by the way.

Leach's presentations are attractive without being towering symbols of chef-importance. An outstanding signature main dish is his roasted saddle of rabbit filled with wild mushroom mousse - the meat was tender (rabbit can be dry) and my neighbour enjoyed the accompanying quennelle made from a puree of dried green peas. Very English.

Grilled seabass came with a gorgeous confit of fennel and a spicy "Asian" pesto. The ribeye steak was a tender island in a deep glossy reduction, studded with well roasted shallots and cloves of garlic, supported by some bubble and squeak that had been tweaked with a touch of horseradish - a great idea that I can't wait to try.

Every dish has its own carefully chosen vegetable accompaniments that both match and enhance: you won't find those horrid all purpose little side dishes with boring broccoli florets and plastic baby sweetcorn. To drink we started with the excellent house Champagne - Mercier Brut at £27.70, followed by a bottle of the crisp local Sharpham Estate Vineyard down the road in Totnes (£19.00). For a relatively inexpensive red, I can recommend the Chateau Cap de Faugeres 1995 from the Cotes du Castillon (£20.95). Castillon was where the hapless Connetable Talbot lost the battle that resulted in the return of Aquitaine and Bordeaux to the French. Ah well, I suppose they would have got them back sooner or later. At least we can now enjoy wines from Castillon that often taste as good as clarets costing twice as much.

Staying at Combe House

Our bed was a cocoon of soft luxury and we slept well and awoke to a perfect autumn morning with clear blue skies and a dusting of frost on the lawn outside. The view from our bedroom window was breathtaking. Pheasants were strutting their stuff, cows meandered about in front of the house and Arab brood mares and their young stock grazed peacefully on a nearby hillside. We continued to soak up the view from our breakfast table. I almost wished I had missed out on dinner as I had little appetite for what looked like a tremendous hunt breakfast. I nibbled puritanically at a piece of toast whilst telling myself how much hungrier I'd be by dinner. On our second morning I managed some scrambled eggs and the most marvellous bacon.

On Saturday evening we joined other friends at a table for eight for dinner back at the hotel. The kitchen was under pressure with two parties of twenty in each of the sumptuous private dining rooms, as well as a full complement of other guests. Dinner was excellent, the organisation was faultless and there were no long pauses, given the requirements of the two simultaneous groups who were dining from entirely different menus. The only thing that suffered a little was some risotto, which was a bit stodgy and overcooked.

Here are just a few of the highlights we enjoyed:

Seared scallops on a cod brandade - they had that naturally sweet taste that really good well-seared scallops have, beautifully set off by the saltiness of the cod.

A boned out quail stuffed with a chicken mousse - that's serious culinary art!

Duck confit - I had that as my main course, nice and crispy on the outside with delectably unctuous flesh falling off the bone.

Combe House viewThe service at Combe House is exemplary, you are made to feel that nothing is too much trouble to make your stay a delight. This trickles down from the very hands-on approach of the proprietors, Ken and Ruth Hunt. Ken is laid-back, but always around checking that his guests are being looked after. He is a great wine enthusiast and he recommended some wonderful wines from New Zealand and Australia, including some outstanding Sauvignon Blanc from Jackson Estate, as well as a full bodied red from the Australian producer, Hollick. They are fortunate to have excellent local wine merchants like Christopher Piper Wines to supply their cellars. 

Clifford Mould, November 1999, February 2000 and June 2004     See Ken's Folly!

Counting the cost:
Table d'Hotel three course lunch £22.50, dinner £36.00

Double Rooms from £140  (standard) - £190 to £295 (superiors and suites) per night including the full Devon Country breakfast.

Combe House, Gittisham
Honiton, Devon, EX14 0AD
Tel: 01404 540400 Fax: 01404 46004

For detailed menus and the wine list take a look at the Combe House website


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