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Combe House Hotel, Devon

Margaret Powling, our new West Country correspondent, lunched in style

Five years ago, Ruth and Ken Hunt, pictured left, bought a neglected country house hotel. As true visionaries, they saw further than the pot-holed drive, the leaky roof and rotting woodwork. Instead they imagined a new roof, fifteen romantic bedrooms and a restored Georgian kitchen that would be an ideal setting for candle lit suppers.

Fast forward five years: Combe House, a manor built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and centre piece of the 3,500 acre Combe Estate, is once again the gracious home it was but now the perfect place for a holiday, a romantic break or, as in our case, Sunday Lunch.

On a September Sunday, we followed a gardener pushing a barrow-load of logs past lavender-filled terracotta pots, through the doorway to the magnificent Great Hall. This grand room is the epitome of an English country house, all 18th century portraits and oak panelling with the rich peaty patina of centuries of log fires and polish. A housekeeper, bustling through en route to who-knows-where, said with a smile, "Someone will be along in a minute," and with that, Alistair, the restaurant manager, introduced himself and showed us into the deep raspberry pink sitting room. More portraits, scenes of rural idylls, and Knowle sofas.

Drinks and menus were soon to hand, closely followed by homemade canapés to set the digestive juices flowing - mini salmon quiches, chicken goujons, and cheese rounds - this was a way of life I could too easily get used to.

Whilst not quite Rex Whistler, the dining room is a tour de force. The previous owner had painted murals of birds and flowers, with pink glass wall lights issuing forth from the centre of some of the flowers. Could the food be a match for this attention-seeking room?

A starter of twice baked goats' cheese soufflé with mixed leaves and yellow pepper dressing was cooked and seasoned to perfection and so gentle on the tongue it really was an example of what soufflé means … a puff of air. Twice baking prevents soufflés from collapsing the moment they leave the oven. Another starter, grilled fillet of salmon with asparagus salad and vierge dressing, was served as current fashion dictates, with the fish skin side up. The fresh flavour of salmon was complemented by a correctly made vierge dressing of olive oil, garlic, tomato and basil.

For his main course, my guest chose the poached fillet of hake, tarragon, mashed potato with a lobster velouté. He's a mashed potato man as well as a fish man so this dish could have been devised with him in mind. I chose pan-fried pork tenderloin wrapped in Parma ham, crushed Jersey Royal potatoes with a chicken velouté. Our clean bowls - plates are definitely passé in modern food presentation where, instead of a linear line up, we're faced with mini-mountains that avalanche the moment they're pierced with a fork - indicated two satisfied customers. However, I would have preferred my pork tenderloin ready sliced so that it didn't appear quite so sausage-like on top of the crushed Jersey Royals. But it was tender tenderloin, so what more could a girl ask?

At Combe House, puddings are sheer heaven. Molten chocolate oozed wickedly from the sponge shell of a classic Chocolate Fondant Pudding, before melting voluptuously into its accompaniment of white chocolate and wild cherry tea ice-cream. But if there's anything with lemon, it's for me, so I chose the lemon verbena panna cotta with strawberries. This confection, cool, silky, and with just a hint of mint, was served in a custard cup artfully arranged on a plate with slices of strawberries and homemade almond shortcakes.

For coffee and petit fours we returned to the raspberry pink sitting room, with its French windows open to the gardens. To sum up, eating at Combe House is a treat. Master chef Philip Leach and his kitchen brigade use, as far as is possible, locally sourced ingredients from West Country suppliers. Seasonal vegetables and aromatic herbs are grown in the high walled kitchen garden. Recently, in addition to the a la carte menu and vegetarian menu, Philip has introduced his six course degustation menu which is changed on a weekly basis. (Low calorie dishes are available on request.) And whilst we chose a glass each of the house white and house red, the Combe House cellar has an imaginative range of fine wines that are a testament to Ken Hunt's eclectic and discerning tastes.

Replete but slightly puzzled, we left Combe House: how is it that such a delightful place, a veritable hive of activity, is yet both peaceful and relaxing? Whatever the secret ingredient, I hope it never loses the recipe.

Margaret Powling, September 2004. Margaret is a regular contributor to Country House and Home, Country Magazine, the Weekend Telegraph and various West Country periodicals.

Lunch: Monday to Saturday, 12.00 - 2 pm
Special 2 courses & canapés - £16.50
Sunday Lunch: 3 courses, canapés, coffee and petit fours - £23.50

Dinner: Every evening 7.30 - 9.30 pm
3 courses & canapés - £34.00

Combe House is the UK Winner of The Condé Nast Johansen's 'Most Excellent Service' Award 2002, and has been awarded Dine Online's accolade: Country House Hotel of Choice 2004

Proprietors: Ken and Ruth Hunt
Combe House Hotel & Restaurant
Gittisham, Honiton, Nr Exeter EX14 3AD

Telephone: 01404 540400 Facsimile: 01404 46004

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


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