This is a version of an article published by the Financial Times.
While the phrase ‘a restaurant with rooms’ conjures up a certain degree of romance, it also requires that those who choose to operate one fulfil certain criteria.
The first is that no such establishment can be too large, otherwise it becomes a hotel. This criterion in turn means that such an establishment has inevitably to be family-run and that it is run for love as a way of life, as much as, if not more than, for the money.
The second is that they must compile a very good wine list. In my, admittedly biased, view, drinking well is one of the major points of taking advantage of proximity between dining room and bedroom.
The third is that they must be able to turn their hands to a vast array of tasks.
The consequence of all of these factors is that a restaurant with rooms can be run with a certain amount of eccentricity, a feature rarely present in larger establishments.
We encountered all of the above during a one-night stay at Little Barwick House, in the small village of Barwick just south of Yeovil, Somerset, which Tim and Emma Ford have been nurturing since they first bought this six-bedroomed Georgian dower house back in 2000, a transformation in which they have now been joined by their 21-year-old son Olly.
A restaurant with rooms also has to be conveniently located, and we happily stopped here after driving three hours south-east from London en route to a memorial lunch in Devon for Kay Henderson, who was the first American woman to win a Michelin star as the original chef at Gidleigh Park in the early 1980s. She and her husband, Paul, had been one of the pioneers of the English country-house hotel movement that did so much in that era to restore confidence and self-belief to the British food movement.
Little Barwick House comes with one very particular advantage in its owners’ aim of getting its customers to slow down. The final mile of the journey is via an 18th-century sandstone cutting, full of twists and turns, one that is steeply banked on either side, and requires careful navigation.
No sooner had we arrived than the first aspect of the Fords' unusual approach to hospitality became obvious. Tea, scones, cream and jam, as well as home-made shortbread appeared almost immediately as two large logs were thrown onto the open fire (this was England in the first week of May!) and we were to learn that such an offering is complimentary on the guests’ day of arrival.
Other particular charms of this well-managed house became immediately obvious. The walls of the narrow stairway that leads up to the comfortable if not luxurious bedrooms are reassuringly lined with awards that the Fords have won over the years. The smells from the nearby kitchen served as confirmation of all this culinary achievement. And in the front is a well-kept garden, dominated by a large cedar tree, and with no shortage of guest-friendly garden furniture.
The dining room that serves as the set for Tim’s skills – although as a chef of the old school he remains present but never seen – is equally traditional and comfortable, the domain of crisp white linen and calm. His menu is simple in its layout, five first courses, six mains and the same number of desserts, but their execution is anything but.
The most surprising aspect of the first courses is that they are all hot. He chooses to take no short cuts at all. A cannelloni of chicken and morel mushrooms was a combination of a delightful texture and colourful presentation, as was an old-fashioned paupiette, a dish I cannot remember seeing on a menu for a long time, a fillet of Cornish lemon sole stuffed with lobster meat on a rich lobster sauce.
Ford’s main courses and desserts share a common trait that is respectively both a weakness and a strength. In the former, he tends to put too many ingredients onto one plate, the well-cooked saddle of roe deer would have been even better with two or three fewer vegetable accompaniments, but it is this generous approach that makes his desserts so good. Rhubarb trifle with honeycomb and an almond tuile and a caramelised apple terrine alongside a prune and honey cake with Somerset brandy ice cream were first class.
And while in any restaurant with rooms, the role of the chef is clearly defined, there remains a wide range of other duties that here fall to the unfailingly smiling Emma.
She is responsible for the wine list that covers an extraordinary range in its 370 bins that includes a welcome collection of half bottles from which we drank a spicy Chateau Musar 2007 (£25.95). This she supplemented a year ago with a La Verre du Vin system located in her office that allows her to offer an extensive range of wines by the glass. Her enthusiasm for this is matched by her enthusiasm for her cheese board, which is proudly on display at the entrance to the dining room and which, with Yeovil at the epicentre of so many excellent cheese makers, is of the same high standard.
As is her sweeping. At 8 am, Emma had turned Cinderella and was clearing the front steps before replanting the window boxes. Such are the duties of running a restaurant with rooms.
Little Barwick House Barwick, Somerset, BA22 9TD; tel +44 (0)1935 423902