The Leopard Restaurant at The Duke of Richmond – the true meaning of ‘fine dining’

I have a problem when I eat at The Duke of Richmond – it’s not their fault at all; it’s entirely mine.  I have a sweet tooth you see, and I just can’t walk past a dessert, a biscuit, nor a sweet jar….

Each time I walk into the Duke, one of the Red Carnation collection of fine hotels, I am confronted by the extraordinary decor, with Bea Tollman’s South African origins clearly on display, even as you step through the door.  The art on the walls is very much an African thing, and the whole hotel almost takes me back to the bushveld in South Africa, and some delightful bush food, the sounds of amazing wildlife and the unmistakable smell of quiet sunset evenings in Africa.  However, and this is where the problem emerges, they have sweet jars with jelly beans, sherbert lemons and soft toffees, just inside on the left, before you walk into the Leopard Bar & Restaurant.  I’ve given the Old Government House Hotel, just down the road, a great deal of stick, as their sweets are really very second rate compared to the Duke.  Now, if you both pay attention please and ensure you start competing for who could have the best sweets in the jar, we’ll pop in much more frequently.  I mean serious competition here folks – check out some of the pick and mix displays and see how much quantity and variety you can achieve, please.  Hint – the Duke of Richmond is winning at the moment, by a long way.

I digress already, but with no apology at all.  There is much to love at the Duke, as last time we visited we scoffed down a delicious afternoon tea, and it is remembered with great fondness.  It was summer, so it must have been a year ago, and we sat on the terrace, washing down the cream and jam and scones with a cheeky glass of something bubbly.  And now it’s summer again, and I’ve brought the family for an early evening meal.

I do enjoy the reassurance of watching the chefs at work through the glass wall which displays all the action in the kitchen.  And you can hear the gentle murmur of a great team of expert cooks as they gently coach superb dishes out of many local ingredients, and without a swear word at all.

I started with the pan seared scallops, pea purée, lemon, and caper sauce.  It was so light, so subtle, so luxurious, and tasted divine.  My dedicated vegetarian partner in crime had a mysterious looking starter of avocado spring rolls with chimichurri and cherry tomato vinaigrette.  She tells me it tasted fresh, light and bursting with flavours, each of which complemented the other – what more could one wish for.

Pan seared scallops, pea purée, lemon, and caper sauce
Avocado spring rolls with chimichurri and cherry tomato vinaigrette

Child One’s imagination does not often stray past prawn cocktail, and it is so difficult to make it original in any way, so it just has to be about fresh and tasty salad, and a good quality to the sauce and prawns, both of which were achieved without pretension.  Child Two’s relatively undeveloped palate was amused by sweet potato soup, but I think he enjoyed the Duke’s bread more, freshly made on the premises, and coming in four different flavours.

Sweet potato soup
Prawn cocktail

I had no idea what wine to order, so casting my eye down the comprehensive wine list I alighted upon an Australian Shiraz called Ass Kisser – I had to have it, and I’m glad I did.  If I’m short of one thing in life it’s an intimate enough knowledge of wines to do them justice in these restaurant reviews.  I decided just to drink it instead of pretending to have much knowledge of it.  That works for me….

My main course was a slightly pink rack of lamb (just the way I like it) with baby vegetables and new potatoes (definitely not Jerseys) all complemented by a rich rosemary jus.  The balance was perfect and the potatoes were plucked out of the steam at exactly the right moment, which I always find a challenge.

Rack of lamb with baby vegetables and new potatoes

The boss went for homemade basil gnocchi with tomato, baby gem and sherry emulsion, and she tells me it’s close to the best she’s ever had.  It was light and tasty with a hint of basil, rather than a flavouring.  I did pinch one off her plate , and I do see what she means.  She reports that it is so different to the usual gnocchi, which often leaves one feeling rather heavy and overloaded – this was light and fresh, and much more gentle on the digestive system.  The boss has a more sophisticated palate than me when it comes to wine, and she tells me the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called Frost Pocket was light, crispy and perfectly complemented her food.

Homemade basil gnocchi with tomato, baby gem and sherry emulsion

Child One, a connoisseur when it comes to beef, really enjoyed the braised beef cheeks, scallion mash and glazed carrots.  Well, to be honest I asked him how it was, but he’s a teenager, so I took his monosyllabic grunt as some kind of positive affirmation, as it was accompanied by a vigorous nodding of the head, and there was no sign of choking.

Braised beef cheeks, scallion mash and glazed carrots

Child Two opted for roasted Barbary duck breast with carrot and orange purée, pickled blackberries and sautéed spinach.  He also grunted his affirmation, which is an accolade, indeed.

Baked Alaska

I’m afraid dessert wounded me a little.  Well, by the time I’d tried everybody’s my palate was a little confused and I may have been ready for a diabetes attack.   Many years ago I tried to impress a new girlfriend by cooking her a meal at home, and ending it with a baked Alaska.  It all ran very smoothly, and my seduction technique was swimming upstream towards the ultimate completion, and then I rescued what was left of the baked Alaska which had become a blob of charred waste in the middle of the oven.  My hopes of seduction dashed, my career as a gourmet chef chef in tatters, I vowed to avoid baked Alaska for the rest of my life – until now.  I could run out of superlatives here, but the best thing is to come along to The Duke of Richmond and try it for yourself.  Seated on a bed of Guernsey Gache, with light and crispy meringue holding beautiful vanilla ice cream, and with a hint of raspberry, this was a feast, and I loved it, so much so that I barely had the motivation to fight with the other three over Bea Tollman’s vanilla cheesecake.  We both had a very satisfying dessert wine, the Muscat Beaumes de Venise.  I’ve not yet made up my mind – after years of trying and sipping dessert wines I’m never quite sure whether it’s just a bit too much, but my judgement has usually entirely disappeared by that stage in a meal.

Bea Tollman’s vanilla cheesecake

The colours, the aromas, the presentation and the tastes were all just faultless.  The service was simply excellent – a flawless orchestra of waiters, chefs, supervisors and sommelier gently gliding between tables, attentive but never conspicuous, and producing a symphony of taste, texture and colour.  Now, how am I going to stagger past those sweet jars on the way out….?

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