Art of Dining’s “Night with the Mistress” in Fenton House
This week we enjoyed a perfect evening in Hampstead, from the prosecco-with-hibiscus welcome drink to the final candlelit, moonlit magic of the night-scented gardens. Seventeenth century Fenton House is one of those elegant London merchant’s houses, all Georgian brickwork, porcelain and tapestries.
In the gardens, sunken corners lead to high terraces hung with roses, or kitchen gardens full of poppies. We sat in the orchard in deckchairs, then strolled inside to admire the views across London from the balcony and the portrait of Dora Jordan, once mistress to the future George IV.
The incredible Kezia Bienck dressed as Dora in turquoise dress, white gloves and dark ringlets, serenaded the diners between courses with love songs and arias from Carmen, twinkling and flirting and stealing our hearts.
A marquee in the garden served as dining room, opera house, bar and salon. As ever, set designer Alice Hodge had conjured up another world, transforming and complementing the setting. This time, the theme required decadent, twisted vines, birch branches, stuffed, golden pheasants, lacy bunting, love letters and candelabras.
Like the maps, nets and bottles at Rainham in May or the renaissance still life of skulls, fruit and bubbles at the Vanitas last year in Hackney, it felt exactly right. From live donkeys to antique china, wooden platters or opulent peonies, every details helps create the atmosphere. A gift for combining this artistic precision with personal warmth is The Art of Dining’s hallmark. Old friends and newcomers, in denim or diamante, are welcomed alike to a relaxed, but magnificent feast.
Each course, of a five-course banquet, took inspiration from a different aspect of the garden. An exquisite stuffed vine leaf on a slow-cooked carrot salad followed a “Pond” of trout in delicate Thai broth and fresh coriander with a crispy frog’s leg (decadence is part of the theme!).
Chef, Ellen Parr, is a perfectionist and all her dishes combine attention to detail, imagination and great, great flavours. Among the second course’s rice and pine nuts, cumin, chilli, mint and a hint of garlic achieved a wonderful subtlety. The third course, was a miniature garden on a plate: baby spinach leaves scattered with fragrant flowers and petals, contrasting with a flowerpot of crispy, deeply umami “soil”, including bacon and olives. A watering can of dressing and vases of edible flowers to add to your plate completes the sensory feast.
The arrival of Borough Wines as a new partner took the dining experience up to a new level. The food has always been great while previously the drink was just fine. The new “Wine Flight” for £17.50 turned out to be a fantastically good deal: a dry, almondy sherry, an incredible apricotty, golden Tokaji and a refreshing, contrasting white wine from Vignobles all came with a brilliant sound bite from the Borough Wines manager, delivered in a sexy accent, that made the wine taste even better. By the time we got to the biodynamic, cherry-leafy Cheverny Rouge (complete with a description of the butterfly-filled French vineyard), we were in wine heaven. The final sparkle was provided by a glass of Sussex champagne (OK – I know you can’t call it that, but it was really good).
Just in case the delicacy of the first three courses leaves diners still peckish, the tandoori rabbit was generous and accompanied by curried potato and burnt onions. Again, the flavours are both subtle and intense: a remarkable balance of spices and seasoning.
What amazes me about Ellen’s cooking is the stamina: five courses and every one a gem, a treasure, a welcome surprise. You would think that, after all that, you could almost forget about pudding, but the elderflower and gooseberry Eton mess (tasted while blindfolded with a strip of white cotton that arrived in an envelope with a billet doux just before the last course) was a dream.
The sharpness of the gooseberries and pale scent of the elderflowers mixed with the best cream and meringue. (Just as in Rainham Hall – at the last pop-up – she had created a perfect, Portugese custard tart with rhubarb, melting in the mouth). By this time, the moon is out in the sky above Fenton House; the candles and fairy lights are all lit, transforming the marquee in to a differently-magical setting from the carnation-and-columbine garden we arrived in.