It all started with oysters.* I love oysters. I adore oysters. Yummy! So fresh and delicious with lemon, shallot vinegar and a good dash of tabasco. You either love oysters or you hate them. The first time I tried them I wasn't too impressed but somewhere along the way, our love affair began.
Masion Talbooth in Dedham, Essex has been on my 'to-do' list for a long while. It's outdoor pool heated to 85 degrees for year-round swimming and restaurant- Le Talbooth - that stands on its own merits or rather, sits so prettily in the romantic and beautiful setting on the River Stour, just minutes from its sister hotel being the reasons why. So, a trip was planned but unfortunately, due to Maison Talbooth's popularity (they were hosting 23 weddings alone in August ) we could only stay one night. Instead, we were offered a night at their sister hotel, Kesgrave Hall, just half an hour away in Suffolk. If you haven't heard of Milsom, I too must plead ignorance, this little group have some great boutique offerings with some really good food to boot and I don't praise food easily; I'm a foodie with very high standards. A family owned group of hotels and restaurants in Essex and Suffolk that started life in 1952 when Gerald Milsom spotted Le Talbooth restaurant, then a simple tearoom and from there the Milsom empire was born.
So, back to the oysters! Kesgrave Hall is just a stones throw from Colchester and Mersea Island - an area infamous for its bivalve molluscs so en route, for our first gourmet lunch we drive up from London to Mersea Island for some seafood so fresh that you are sitting by the sea it has just come out of. What a glorious day we had, sunshine, white wine, boats and food. Unfortunately, we didn't make it up in time to get a first come first served booking at The Company Shed - the only place to eats seafood on Mersea Island - BYO wine and bread, not sophisticated, not expensive, just the freshest seafood you can find. So, sadly, we settled on a poorer cousin, The Oyster Bar.
Sated and ready for a lazy afternoon, a quick drive took us to the magnificent Grade II listed mansion that is Kesgrave Hall. A boutique hotel just outside Ipswich with a gorgeous contemporary feel and it's here we sat on the expansive terrace sipping our afternoon drinks and barely moving before embarking on a delcious dinner overlooking the even more expansive lawn where toddler PCG played with a handful of other children from our neighbouring table- a family out celebrating a birthday and enjoying a leisurely lunch together as one thing that is familiar throughout the group, food is served all day so there is no need to rush.
At Kesgrave, the large open kitchen provided hours of entertainment later that evening for Alexander to stand and watch the chefs at work! A word or two on the food: Firstly, children are well looked after and catered for with a children's menu offering a good variety of healthy and tasty options and secondly, the menu is pretty big but at the same time you want to try everything on it rather than one of those that is vast but nothing takes your fancy!
It's a reasonably well thought-out, brasserie menu and everything that we tried from the duck spring rolls to the simple steak to the chocolate delice was perfectly executed and tasted delicious thanks to quality ingredients. The same rang true at break fast time. As the night came to end, we ambled through the garden back to our very private two bedroom suite; a comfortable haven of relaxation decorated in contemporary colours with two flat screen TV's, crisp white linen, designer toiletries and massive walk in shower (all spotless by the way) for a very comfortable night's sleep.
Another day, another Milsom Hotel and after a yummy (full English - I can't say 'no') breakfast we are off to Maison Talbooth, an easy thirty minute drive away. Maison, was one of the first country house hotels with wow factor and pulling up in the driveway and off the narrow country lane we encountered what I would describe as a wealthy eccentric old aunt. I mean that in an endearing way. Maison, is an older property through and through, luxurious inside and out with a modern poolhouse outside.
Each room is named after a British author with the theme running through into the plush decor. We stayed in Shelley, a very large corner room with vast bathroom and whirlpool bath and windows on two sides, one with the most glorious views to Constable country and the fields beyond. There are only twelve rooms at Maison so the atmosphere is more intimate than at Kesgrave and as tours of hotel groups go, a lovely contrast to the previous night's stay. Bags deposited we headed straight for the poolhouse. Everything there at your disposal from honesty bar to spa menu ( I missed out on try the treatments but the menu looked fantastic and the spa is a go-to destination on its own) to food menu. You can while away the day quite happily lounging by the pool or in the hot tub and so that is what we did until little Alexander needed some lunch.
Although they serve a small but appetising menu in the drawing room or breakfast room or indeed outside in the garden all day, we decided to do the full tour and headed two minutes down the road to the picturesque, yet buzzing Milsoms; a stylish and contemporary bar, brasserie and hotel set in gorgeous gardens, a quick Milsom's Range Rover ride away - we were ferried there and back, as the hotel does for its guests, also to Le Talbooth where we were taken later that day - a touch that is well received and much appreciated by the guests! Again we sat outside on the terrace, in the garden. The brasserie is pretty large and it was full, on a week day. A testament to the quality of the food and the great atmosphere. Families, business colleagues, couples- across the spectrum all enjoying lunch at such a lovely and well run venue. And, they had home-made taramasalata- something that I haven't had in a long time - so easy to make yet nobody does and the taste is just in a different league to the shop bought stuff. A big thumbs-up from me and for the prawn cocktail too - an old seventies classic executed perfectly!
After another leisurely meal, interspersed with one parent chasing Alexander around the garden, the other sitting all alone (a glass of wine in had-much needed) at the table, we called for our 'taxi' and headed back for an afternoon swim. Before we knew it just time to order a gigantic fish and chips for Alexander ( sorry- this post is very food-heavy-exactly how we felt after 3 days!) we settled him in bed, got our glad rags on trying to build up an appetite and waited for the babysitter.
Once, acquainted, formalities over, Alexander asleep we head down the road to jewel in the culinary crown of the Milsom Group - Le Talbooth. A true restaurant destination in it's own right with the accolades to match. It's a true fine dining restaurant, with a setting to die for on the river. Despite the huge following and reputation they have appointed a new chef which I hope will take them in to Michelin Star territory, in my opinion really not far off at all - Andrew Hirst, formerly of Daniel, the 3 Michelin Starred restaurant in Manhattan, New York, has just joined to lead the team. A local by birth I am truly looking forward to him making his mark and gaining Le Talbooth the star they are on the cusp of achieving.
A word on the food, with a local leaning menu; the salmon tartare was superb; light with a richness coming from a perfect egg yolk, a kick from the horseradish and a fresh finish from the caviar. The Dedham Vale chateaubriand was a rare treat (excuse the pun). You only want to choose a dish like this is a restaurant that doesn't ruin in and here they certainly will not! I finished with the coffee and walnut cheescake - just delicious and of the fine dining variety so expect to be overwhelmed by the flavours and presentation. Service was flawless as you would have expected it to be. This is something that I must congratulate Milsom on; every single establishment we went to offered the same exacting standards and high levels of service with the food again consistently really fabulous. It is where most other groups fail miserably, no consistency at all and is a real achievement. So, review almost over. I'm running out of space here. needless to say, great night's sleep in a huge bed followed by yet another delicious breakfast, fresh quality ingredients, luxury offering like smoked salmon and scrambled eggs ( I had a tripple decker bacon sandwich - a real treat and the lesser of two evils verses the full English breakfast). It is then, after another brief visit to the poolhouse for Alexander to enjoy one last swim, that we packed the car and left.....to the last Milsom offering....The Pier at Harwich - an utterly fabulous seafood restaurant, brasserie and small hotel whose review I will leave for another time!