Well, recently we went to the Balmer Lawn Hotel for a lunch to celebrate my parents' 61st wedding anniversary and my Mum's birthday. Thank goodness, we were in anything but a hurry when we attended this lovely hotel as the service was attentive, but regrettably slow. However, we weren't pressurised for time and had written out the entire afternoon for the adventure so the long wait in between courses wasn't a problem. That aside, if you find yourself in the New Forest and looking for somewhere a little bit special, a little bit country house with ponies on the front lawn in which to stay, lunch or dine - the Balmer Lawn Hotel (Tel. 01590 421066) is an excellent choice. However, I must point out that this review is purely of the restaurant and does not take in any of the accommodation or spa facilities.
The Hotel is in a beautiful position and has recently been renovated, so the paintwork and decoration is both tasteful and delightfully clean. Apart from these huge positives, the very great strength of the Balmer Lawn is its staff who are attentive, charming and extremely helpful. Not once were we made to feel uncomfortable or unsure - and as a disabled person in a wheelchair, that is something of a rarity!
We congregated in the spacious lounge and nobody turned a hair as we re-arranged the comfy chairs and coffee tables to accommodate our rather large party. Everyone enjoyed a pre-lunch drink from the bar in the lounge before adjourning to the dining hall, passing through the splendidly wood panelled reception on the way.
The dining hall is a lovely room with plenty of space for a large party and lots of lovely natural light from the gallery of large windows.
The meal itself was decreed to be extremely good by the entire party, although I had some slight issues with my meal. However, being a self-confessed foodie of long standing, I have to admit that I am a very hard person to please. Owing to the transient nature of menu items, it is very probable that by the time you get there the menu items I chose would have been changed as the Hotel endeavours to capitalise on local and seasonal produce.
I can, however, recommend their fish cookery as being quite superb - but we will get to that as we go along.
We enjoyed some good quality bread of two types along with a tasty olive oil with goat's curd and pink peppercorns as we pondered the menu and made our choices.
The multigrain toast was delicious, however with four pieces of toast but three pieces of terrine, one had to be cautious in eking out each mouthful. I can't help thinking that four pieces of terrine would have been an improvement, or three pieces of toast - one or the other! A marked lack across all the starters that involved bread or toast, was any involvement of butter. The piccalilli did a grand job of lubricating each mouthful, but a little butter would have definitely have helped. For all that though, the starter was very acceptable and I dare say the majority would have been happy enough.
Hubby's choice of starter was the Rosary goat's cheese with beetroot and pickled vegetable salad, which he was thoroughly enamoured with. He loved the fresh flavour of the goat's cheese, which suited the sweet, earthy beetroot carpaccio beautifully and very definitely appreciated that the pickled carrot had been pickled in a different style of vinaigrette to that used on the beetroot. A small point, but one which made such a difference.
I apologise for not catching a photograph of everyone's choices, by the way. I do attempt to be discrete when photographing restaurant food, so that accounts for the lack of a full photographic record. However, I'm fortunate in having a foodie-in-training in our son, who also took photographs of his food, which I'm using - so thank you son & heir!
The fillet of Sea Bream with crushed new potatoes, spinach and sauce vierge was an easy choice for my main course. The fish was cooked to delicate, moist, golden perfection and utterly delicious. The sheer quality of the fish cookery was slightly let down, however, by the greasiness of the crushed new potatoes which although buttery, when coupled with buttery spinach, proved a butter too far. Perhaps chef was making up for the lack of butter in the starter, who knows! My advice would be to increase the quantity of the sauce vierge that is on the plate, or reduce the quantity of butter used, as I very definitely needed that sharpness of the sauce vierge to cut through the cloying butteriness and there just wasn't enough. However, I am being incredibly picky here - I can imagine that again, the majority of people would be extremely happy with this dish. Still, it wouldn't hurt to change "extremely happy" to "ecstatic", now would it?
My husband had the beer battered fish and chips with tartare sauce and crushed peas and as he has the same at every location possible, is something of a fish and chip gourmet. The dish served at the Balmer Lawn was quite probably the best fish and chips he has ever tasted from a venue in Dorset - which considering his previous favourite was The Three Tuns at Bransgore - is quite an accolade. The real surprise with this dish, however, were the crushed peas! The pea flavour was as fresh as a daisy, with buttery undertones and a lightness that spoke of mint, or lemon (or both!). Just scrummy.
Our son, predictably, chose the sirloin steak and was disappointed to find his served more of a medium than medium rare, as is his normal choice and indeed what he asked for. However, he was very content with both the flavour and texture, not to mention jolly impressed by the big chunky chips that accompanied the steak.
My extremely naughty and indulgent choice for dessert was the chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce and hazelnut ice cream. The brownie came served hot, which just increased the yum factor by many and the hazelnut ice cream was divine. The chocolate sauce was a joke, taking the form of a paintbrushed smudge across the plate that is really no use to man nor beast except to add colour, so don't expect much from that! However, the brownie and icecream more than made up for the lack of sauce, so don't be put off!
For all that I have been universally critical of the food, you have to remember that the food is my focus. I know how to cook the majority of these dishes and appreciate it when a chef has obviously gone the extra mile - plus can spot when the chef has stopped short. The whole of the party professed themselves extremely pleased with their meals (with the exception of the dry waffle/embarrassed cherry combination). The criticism I have offered makes the difference between a meal being - as it was - great, or being outstanding.
For the prices of each dish (as at April 2015) - ranging from around £7 (ham hock terrine) to £20 (sirloin steak) - served in a genteel, quality establishment in such beautiful surroundings, I think the Balmer Lawn Hotel did very well. If the restaurant facilities could just speed up the delivery of each course, there would be little to complain about. A three quarters of an hour wait between main course and dessert, really is pushing it however. We fully appreciated that with a wedding to cater for at the same time as our lunch, no doubt the kitchen was busy - but really, don't accept a booking if you can't deliver what you are offering.
So, make sure you have loads of time in hand when you book to eat in the Balmer Lawn - a leisurely meal with friends to talk to, is definitely the way to go.