A 10-course tasting menu and a wine facial – what more could anyone want? Georga Spottiswood gets ‘drunk in love’ at Rockliffe Hall.
Rockliffe Hall is like a fine wine – it gets better with age.
When you think there’s no room for improvement, it slaps you in the face with another slice of excellence.
I’ve been a fan of the venue since it opened its doors back in October 2009. At the time, I was editor of a North-East lifestyle magazine and was bowled over by its magnificent spa and shiny new bedrooms.
Middlesbrough boss and owner of the glittering hotel, spa and golf development, Steve Gibson, had reportedly spent £50m on it and he also bagged Michelin-star chef Kenny Atkinson to take charge at The Orangery restaurant. Of course, that was nine years ago and times change, but as the years have gone by, Rockliffe continues to become more seasoned – in every way.
A £1m Spa Garden was launched at the end of 2015, The Orangery restaurant was refurbished last year and Lewis Carrollinspired “Woodland of Curiosities” is set to open later this summer, featuring curious cabins, a walled garden, glasshouse and tennis courts.
Kenny left to pursue his own ambitions, opening his own restaurant – the Michelin-star House of Tides in Newcastle – and in 2011, Richard Allen became the resort’s executive chef.
I first tried Richard’s food in 2016 and it was phenomenal back then. This time? It blows my mind.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve got to know Richard and his thought process. This man is seriously committed to putting the best ingredients in front of his guests, cooked to the highest of standards.
It’s the reason The Orangery has 4 AA Rosettes. Beetroot with smoked Ragstone cream is the amuse bouche of the 10-course tasting menu, which will be the best £80 you ever spend. Why settle for mediocrity when you can have magnificence at this price?
The chalk stream trout, served with crab, dill, cucumber and bisque, is sourced from the River Test. The famous, spring-fed chalk stream, in Hampshire, has ‘gin clear’ water, a constant flow rate and excellent light and vegetation – which creates a haven for the fish. You can taste the freshness in your mouth.
I interviewed Richard live on stage at a food festival recently. Here, he was talking to the crowd about his menu and a woman piped up: “Rockliffe Hall is somewhere I always thought was too expensive but when you see what goes into each dish, the different elements and how long they take to make, I’d happily pay those prices.”
The cucumber has been fermented and it’s finished with a cucumber flower. The dish is perfectly paired with a Japanese wine: Hishiyama, with peach and melon notes that work wonderfully with the trout.
Our sommelier for the evening is David Brunton, who at 31 has a extensive knowledge of wines. He’s been trained up by head sommelier, Daniel Jonberger – whose wine journey has seen him at the Samling and Holbeck Ghyll.
Duck liver parfait with smoked eel, rhubarb vinegar and pine nuts combine flavours and textures harmoniously. The dish is one of the best performances of the evening. Not so much for my dining partner, who’s a pescetarian (in a loose sense of the word – he just doesn’t eat meat or drink milk).
The duck liver is swapped for chervil root, mushroom foam and white truffle shavings, which if it was an 11th course on the menu, would have gone down my hatch, too.
The squab pigeon, with charred carrots and nasturtium, is served with a jus that’s been prepared with the carcass of the pigeon for two days. I feel like Oliver Twist but resist from asking, ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’.
Lamb, wild garlic, sea spinach, peas and beans come with belly of lamb, minced lamb and a loin. David pairs it with a Teroldego Rotaliano, a wine that’s aged for two years in oak. The hints of caramel and blackberries are a knock-out with this dish.
Jersey royal potato salad and soup potato and leek is what my partner is served. He doesn’t make any eye contact with me until he’s consumed it. “Are you allowed to lick your plate in an establishment like this?” pretty much sums up his thoughts on it.
The Alex James Blue Monday cheese features ‘Waldorf’ flavours. The craftsmanship of this dish is the epitome of greatness. A small, perfectly round apple is, in fact, cheese. The Rivesaltes Ambre – a French wine aged in cognac barrels for seven years – beautifully balances it with notes of honey and hazelnuts.
Two desserts – peach with sorrel and strawberry with fennel – and petit fours of rose water, ras el hanout (North African spices) tonka, almond and pistachio are the curtain call to this theatrical show.
David and Jeanluka – who’s front of house – return to our table to see how we’ve found the experience. Just like the food, service here is spectacular – without being stuffy. You don’t feel if you drop your knife, or leave crumbs on the table, that you’ll be told off. The team are friendly and always on hand to advise or answer any questions
Skincare and wine? I was sold. Instantly.
Caudalie is a skincare brand and the story starts with founder Mathilde Thomas, whose family owns vineyards in Bordeaux. When she learned from Professor Joseph Vercauteren (a world specialist in polyphenols) that her vineyards were “throwing away treasures”, Mathilde worked with him to create the first grape extract-derived antioxidant skin care formula.
Now there’s an extensive range of products and Rockliffe Hall became the first spa in the North East to offer face and body treatments with Caudalie.
My vino therapist is Rachel, who’s been specially trained by Caudalie experts. The treatments are all in keeping with the vineyard theme, and include the Wine Makers Massage, Crushed Cabernet Body Treatment and Premier Cru Facial.
I opt for the latter and products such as thirst-quenching serum, grape water and vine body butter are spritzed and poured over my skin. The beauty of these products is that they contain no parabens, mineral oils, sodium laureate sulfate or animal ingredients.
The treatment lasts one hour. It’s utterly indulgent and just like Beyonce, I’m left ‘Drunk in Love’ by the time it’s finished.
ROCKLIFFE HALL RESORT FACT BOX
Richard Allen’s 10-course tasting menu is £80. Wine pairing is £60. The Caudalie Premier Cru Facial is £100 for 60 minutes. Visit rockliffehall.com for special spa offers and overnight offers.