The Chef’s Dozen
Now this is a bit different. We all know that you don’t need to travel far into the Cotswolds to stumble across a honey-washed pub with Farrow & Ball colours, flagstone floors and Londoners fighting to play it rural for a weekend. But finding a modern fine dining restaurant with flair? That’s a tougher proposition.
So it’s as roll-out-the-red-carpet moment for The Chef’s Dozen in Chipping Campden for pulling off a little piece of contemporary magic in this elegant but very traditional village.
I visited on the second day of a trip to the Cotswolds. I’d already spent the morning in Chipping Campden itself, so I’d just about had my dose of quaint and pretty. I always think it must be challenge in some of these picture-perfect-chocolate-box villages and towns to be anything other than lovely period pieces, selling antiques to the retired and pub lunches to tourists.
Chipping Campden does have a clutch of interesting shops – the very cool stationary/gift shop and printers The Cherry Press and the funkily expensive Campden Gallery for starters, plus the Robert Welch HQ and cutlery shop to get your mum excited. But having walked the high street, stopped off at the church and taken some arty photos of the 400 year old Market Hall roof, I was definitely ready for something a bit different.
The Chef’s Dozen is run by a husband and wife team, as these ventures so often are, and has the slick well managed feel that reflects their experience – the chef Richard Craven worked with Emily Watkins (former sous chef at The Fat Duck) at the Kingham Plough, followed by a job as sous chef at The Tasting Room in South Africa, voted as one of the world’s 50 Best Restaurants during his time there. Solanche, formerly an assistant manager at a large hotel, runs front of house, and has a drama degree to keep things ticking over charmingly while she’s on ‘stage’.
First impressions were very good. I loved the discreet entrance off the High St, the cute courtyard that I could see would be gorgeous in high summer, and then, inside, the clean, elegant, coolly contemporary look. Lovely, isn’t it? And very different for these parts.
It’s a bijou restaurant with only 30-odd covers (so perfect for renting out for a private party) so it doesn’t take many tables booked to make it feel busy. I took my lovely mum, who is the main beneficiary of pub and restaurant reviews. Look, she’s not at all smug.
Anyway, she loved her meal at The Chef’s Dozen so much that she’s already booked in with her friend to go again and she thought it was the best meal she’s had with me.
The food is true field to fork stuff, with produce seasonal and local. Most chefs will tell you the same these days, it’s kind of expected isn’t it, but there’s no doubt that the Cotswolds offers a particularly compelling range of top local produce to plunder.
We ate the ‘chef’s dozen’, three choices in each of the four courses. It was every bit as amazing as it looks (and don’t you totally dig the crockery?).
Like the very best meals I’ve tasted – and I’m thinking here of Le Manoir, Humphry’s at Stoke Park, L’Ortolan, a couple of restaurants in San Sebastien – the courses were like little works of gastronomic art – beautifully presented, inventive, creating taste sensations you’ll never be able to replicate in a million years. Portion were perfect – at the end of four courses (and a sneaky macaroon extra to end) I felt full but not bloated. If I was being picky, my cod lacked a little punch compared to my mum’s game (though it’s not really a fair comparison), but that’s a very small gripe over a meal that has ‘special occasion’ glittering all over it.
The restaurant doesn’t open for lunch, other than Friday and Saturday, a reflection of Richard and Solanche’s intention that they and their staff don’t work the incredibly unsociable hours of many in this industry (respect!). It’s not affected The Chef’s Dozen’s ability to win awards. Richard snapped up Chef of the Year at the 2015 Cotswold Life Food and Drink Awards and the restaurant was the town’s Best High Street Business in 2014.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Unquestionably a wonderful spot for a romantic dinner, or special celebration. And you’d be very grateful to be invited here for a Friday business lunch. Ideal for hiring the whole place (not sure if they do that but I’ll check). That outside terrace area is perhaps a more relaxed area if you wanted to bring kids along though I imagine it comes into its own when it gets dark and the fairy lights come out.
Not for: Extended relaxed gatherings. It’s not an informal, church pew/fireplace pub. It’s fine dining in a small, intimate, predominantly white room! I wouldn’t bring in a baby or toddler, it’s too confined a space for them. Older kids will be fine as long as they can work their way through an adult menu (I say this as the mother of a teenager who still loves fish fingers). The size of the room means it’s a maximum table booking for 6. If you’re fussy about your interiors you might find the stairway carpet a bit threadbare, but hey, you’re not being asked to eat it.
£££: The ‘chef’s dozen’, which gives a choice of three dishes for each of the four courses for £38 is stupendously good value in my opinion. There’s also a set three course meal for £25 (or two for £19). The seven-course tasting menu is £58pp – compare that to Le Manoir! A no-brainer if you’re in shooting distance of Chipping Campden or are planning a visit to the Cotswolds.