Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf Club and Spa, is situated on the Suffolk & Essex borders and is considered to be the best example of its kind in East Anglia. It boasts two 18-hole championship golf courses set amongst spectacular scenery and has 80 bedrooms. In addition it offers conference facilities and it is an ideal location for weddings and private functions.
My wife (Louise) and I booked a one night stay on a Friday in early May. We had come mainly to sample the food that Executive Head Chef Alan Paton and his team of 19 Chefs had to offer. By chance, the day before we arrived, the hotel had an AA inspection and was awarded a second Rosette. An award like this is no easy task for a hotel offering such a broad spectrum of services, and congratulations are certainly in order to the entire team.
When you first drive into the hotel grounds you notice this has a very corporate themed feel and of course it is by its nature, a corporate style hotel. But it also has a rather romantic feel to it once you get through the doors into reception. It is large and busy, but at the same time, quiet and intimate when tucked away in the corner of the lounge, or outside on the terrace watching the golfers frustrations as their shots make quite a splash when they veer off into the lake. The balance of offering something for everyone must be the hotels biggest challenge, but they seem to have achieved this and that is down to good planning, financial and commercial business acumen and hard work.Room prices vary greatly depending on advance bookings and looking a couple of weeks in advance one might pay £80 for a standard double and as little as £121 for an executive double. On the night we stayed, an executive double was priced at £150. These prices demonstrate exceptional value considering the location, standard and facilities available to guests.
Our room, Tamara suite (room 208), was clean, spacious, comfortable and in good decorative order. The super king sized bed had crisp, fresh white sheets and the views overlooking the golf course were stunning, made just that little bit more perfect by the fact it was such a hot and sunny spring day. The room facilities exceeded my expectations and how nice it was to see “proper” sized bottles of complimentary water on offer rather than those inferior versions which offer two mouthfuls!
One of the first things I noticed about the hotel was the professional approach towards customer service and how well this was executed during the course of our stay. Check in was swift, efficient and informative. The bar staff were on the ball, friendly and chatty, the waiting staff were polite, attentive and knowledgeable and it is clear to me that the level of customer service training staff receive is of a very high standard. The hotel was in a good state of repair and well decorated throughout. It was reassuring to see staff cleaning as we walked around the hotel and one of the things I always judge general cleanliness on is the state of the toilets. This hotel has many, and they were all spotless!
The broad demographics that this hotel is expected to cater for is vast and looking in from the outside, they seem to cope exceptionally well. On any one day the hotel might cater for a group of golfers on a fixed price dinner bed and breakfast deal, a local company management workshop using one of the conference rooms facilities requiring a hot and cold lunch buffet, a large wedding reception, a charity jazz night with a fixed price buffet or light supper, a hen night and spa break, or the romantic couple seeking a weekend break requiring quality a la carte dining. And if that’s not enough to cope with, the lounge menu offers hot food all day until 11pm and cold snacks after that. Now that’s a challenge and a half for the Chefs and the service teams!Our table was booked for 7pm and we headed to the bar at 6 for the obligatory “drinks sampling” exercise and to peruse the menus available. The bar offered a good variety of beers, ale & cider and there is a comprehensive wine list with a large choice of wines by the glass available. The menus offered variety and well reflected the requirements of such a broad clientele. There is a good a la carte menu offering six choices of each course. A Table d’hote menu with a further four choices, a lounge menu offering a large choice including light bites and sandwiches and a daily specials menu. The hotel also offers a dedicated cheese menu featuring six quality cheeses. Our professional and knowledgable waiter informed us that we could mix and match from any menu, but if we were on a dinner, bed and breakfast deal (which we weren’t), then some of the dishes would carry a surcharge. After a couple of cold beers, we ordered a very nice bottle of 2009 Vina Collada Rioja Riscal (£18.95) and shown to our table.
With the exception of Lou’s dessert, we both chose to order from the a la carte menu. Before I progress to the starter course, I would like to discuss the complimentary bread course as this deserves a mention. Firstly the Leek and potato bread offered a sweet and subtle onion background flavour from the leek element but with none of the onion harshness. Soft and fluffy dough next from the Hickory smoked Bacon with Olives. This had multiple textures, rich flavour depths and a hint of BBQ coming through from the hickory bacon. A beautiful bread with a seeded crust. Finally, my favourite, Wild Garlic and Basil. This was divine, a true taste of the Mediterranean with the Basil dominating, followed by the gentle hit of sweet garlic followed by the two merging equally on the palate. Top marks for the bread course and five stars for supplying butter that was spreadable!
So, on to starters then. Lou chose the “Mackerel on toast”, Horseradish butter & Soused Cucumber (£6.50) and I chose the Carpaccio of Venison, Granny Smith Apple jelly, Thyme and Watercress & Hickory Balsamic glaze (£6.95). My venison was perfect in every way. Sweet tender meat perfectly seasoned and the tiny salt crystals glistening on top of the venison along with the neutral oil streaked with hickory balsamic glaze which offered a sweet, smokey background flavour which worked well with the Granny Smith apple component. Even the micro herbs served a purpose and the strong almost floral flavours from the thyme worked well. The presentation of this dish was perfect.
The Mackerel dish was also a winner and the big twist here was the toast element. This comprised of crispy croutons, so in effect, a deconstructed mackerel on toast. The soused cucumber was both sweet as well as sour and cut through the slightly earthy taste of a very fresh piece of mackerel. The horseradish butter offered just a hint of background heat, but was pleasantly sweet and silky and complimented the overall dish. Another perfectly presented and well executed dish.On to the main course now and if you are eating anything engineered by Alan Paton, in my opinion, it has to be a pork offering. The lounge wall is home to Alan’s endless pork related framed awards and he is well known in culinary circles for his expertise with all things pork. I chose the Pork four ways main, which comprised of Belly, Cheek, Hock & Fillet with Celeriac, Beetroot, Apple and Spaetzle (£16). This was a stunningly presented dish and I spent a minute or so looking at the plate in front of me wondering where to start. Each pork element had its own unique flavour and texture depth. What was really clever here was the individual level of sweetness present from each individual component of the perfectly cooked meat cuts. A beautiful light and crispy pork scratching was a pleasant surprise and left your teeth in tact! The celeriac, beetroot and apple offered so many flavour bursts and together with the spaetzle this dish offered smoky, sweet, sour and astringent flavours. So many bold flavours here, but I was surprised how they worked well together and contributed to a very well rounded plate of food.
Louise chose Butter Roasted Halibut, Cauliflower & Pistachio crust, Ras el Hanout Carrots, Beluga Lentils, Saffron sauce, Rosewater oil & BBQ Date jam (£17.50). Now there’s a lot going on with this dish and if I am honest a little too much for me. While the presentation was good and the fish was cooked perfectly, for me it was a little too “busy” Lou completely finished it and thoroughly enjoyed it, but we both agreed the overpowering spice from the ras el hanout carrots didn’t need to be there and overpowered the fish. The crust worked well and the saffron sauce and rosewater oil offered background flavours which worked, but for me, a fish of this quality needs very simple treatment. I would score this a good seven out of ten, but if it had been simply pan fried with perhaps a lemon and caper beurre noisette with steamed spring vegetables, it would have got full marks.
To finish, Lou had the White Chocolate and Passion Fruit Torte, Lemon Cream & Bitter Chocolate sauce (from the inclusive table d’hote menu, price not available). Absolutely divine! Heaven on a plate, this was light, creamy and more mousse like than cheesecake, a very well constructed and beautifully presented dessert. For me it was cheese as usual as I am more of a savoury rather than sweet diner. The hotel has a cheese menu (£6.75) offering a choice of six popular cheeses. I asked for just 3 from the full 6, Suffolk Brie, Mrs Temples Alpine and Lanark Blue. Great cheeses, and like the earlier butter, served at room temperature. Top marks for this and I wish more kitchens would understand that cheese straight from the fridge is not good!
All in all a very good dining experience, the kitchen and waiting staff are able to offer a very high standard of dining in such a diverse setting. Every dish was perfectly seasoned (get rid of those giant salt & pepper pots, you don’t need them!), well presented and exceptional value for money. The sky is the limit here for Alan Paton, but to bring it up another level, the hotel will need to invest in a dedicated fine dining restaurant with selected waiting staff. To test out my theory, it would be nice to see perhaps a pre advertised “gourmet night” in a dedicated and separate dining area. If you ever do try it, please let me know as you will certainly have my support.Breakfast was very much what I expected. A hot and cold buffet arrangement with a few “cook to order” options, but it was perfectly acceptable and the sausages were actually very good. I might be inclined to invest in a decent conveyer toaster however, and from a purely selfish point of view, add Eggs Benedict to the breakfast menu please. I would have no hesitation in heading back to Stoke by Nayland Hotel anytime. And that might just be for a Gourmet Night sometime soon!