As a side trip from London, I recently spent the weekend at Lime Wood, a luxurious country house hotel-spa in England's New Forest. What drew us there was this year's redesign and refocusing of the hotel's restaurant with the help of Angela Hartnett, whom we've known since her days as chef at London's Connaught Hotel, when she succeeded in sweeping away quite a few of that establishment's legendary cobwebs. (Staid no longer, The Connaught is now quite the scene.) Ms. Hartnett and Lime Wood's original chef, Luke Holder, have re-thought the menu, adding more Italian touches while continuing to take advantage of key assets like Mr. Holder's house-cured and smoked meat and fish and the area's great wild and farmed produce. The restaurant is now called Hartnett Holder & Co., and if any of you knew the place before 2013, you won't recognize it. The dining room, its staff, the plates and cutlery -- and the cooking -- are more easy-going and more appropriate to the country.
So, at the outset my main interest in Lime Wood was the food. The rest, whatever it was, would be a bonus. "The rest" turned out to be a most addictive spa, lovely surroundings with nice walks through forest and field -- and some of the best service/hospitality I've experienced.
Although there are comfortable, quiet drawing rooms all around the ground floor -- plus vast outdoor terraces -- the center of life at Lime Wood is its interior courtyard, almost like a Spanish patio with a glass roof, where there is a big bar run by an engaging man called Max, and plenty of seating: tables and comfortable chairs, sofas with low tables, bar stools. Here (or elsewhere), at pretty much any time of day, you can have a cup of tea or a bottle of Champagne, a bowl of toasted almonds or a hamburger or a dish of English-fished octopus with potatoes. Or you can have full afternoon tea. The standard -- for both food and drink -- is very high. Service here and throughout the hotel is efficient, sunnily friendly and spookily professional. I say "spookily" because not only did most staff members know our name, but the bar waiter remembered which of the wines by the glass each of us had had the day before, which is more than I can say for us.
The Herb House spa/fitness club is in a separate building just a few steps from the main house. It offers the usual range of massages and other treatments, including some under the well-regarded Bamford name; Jackie had a one-hour Bamford "de-stress" massage and came away feeling boneless and smelling of lavender. Even I allowed myself to be kneaded from the waist up for half an hour, in great comfort. But to my mind the best thing about the spa is its pools: a 16-meter lap pool; an outdoor soaking tub of hot water with hydro-massage jets (fun even in cold weather); and, my favorite, the hydrotherapy pool, which is like an amusement park, with about half a dozen comfortable stainless-steel structures you can mount or hang onto while powerful jets of warm water play on your body. It was the most fun. I am a little scared of saunas but couldn't help spending a few minutes in this one: it was dreadfully hot (which I am told is a good thing), deliciously aromatic and visually beautiful, with a glass wall looking out at the forest -- a view shared by the hydrotherapy pool.
At the front desk, you can get little walking maps with detailed directions; we went for two walks. On the first day, we walked, partly through the forest, to the nearest village, Lyndhurst, its main street lined with tea rooms, little shops, a "working men's club"... and a Maserati dealership, which is surely a sign of some demographic ferment in the neighborhood. On this and the next day's forest walk, we had close encounters with placid New Forest ponies and horses (you should read about the forest and how the land came to be used for grazing and pasturing), and got our shoes all muddy -- a situation cheerfully and quickly remedied by hotel staff members. We could, of course, have borrowed Wellington boots, which are available in all colors and sizes in the Boot Room.
If you have a car (we didn't -- it is easy to get there from London by train plus taxi) there is much to see in the area, as the people at the front desk will tell you, but for a couple of days I think you'll be perfectly happy staying put and taking the odd two-, three- or four-mile walk if you like.
Dinner at Harnett Holder & Co. started with make-it-yourself bruschette: toasted bread (home made using years-old sourdough starters) and several toppings, including a good beet "tartare." Then came a sampler of the things they make in their smoke house (ask to see it: it is a very serious affair, with legs of wild boar/Tamworth-cross hogs hanging there, turning into prosciutto). Some were more flavorful than others, and in some cases smoke was too dominant. A complex fennel sausage, dried in the smokehouse but served hot in this presentation, was delicious.
Double agnolotti were conjoined pairs of filled fresh pasta nuggets. Each pair consisted of one stuffed with burrata (slightly tangy and a surprisingly good pasta filling) and one with confit guinea fowl, all sparingly but richly glazed. A terrific dish. The other starter was less successful: a fried duck egg draped over perfectly cooked duck hearts, tiny turnips and little bacon matchsticks. It was the bacon that knocked the dish off balance: it was simply too smoky and it overwhelmed the other good flavors.
Perfectly rare-medium-rare but over-charred venison was served with red cabbage (cooked to crisp-tenderness) and still-crunchy apples; working around the almost acrid crust, I realized that the meat underneath was very good (not super-gamey: just right, in fact), and I wish the balance between crust and interior flesh had been better. There were no such problems with a dish of pig cheeks, seasoned, slow-cooked, then finished in a sweet madeira glaze. The consistency was ideal -- very tender, but neither mushy nor stringy -- and the flavor elegant.
Desserts were a slice of chocolate-and-vanilla semifreddo and a layered lemon cream. Both were simple in their effect and perfectly delicious.
We ordered à la carte and sat in the dining room (newly designed by Martin Brudnizki), but you can also eat "family style" around a big table in the kitchen, or you can order a (copious) menu chosen and, in part, served and introduced by the chefs for a very reasonable £55 (about $80) a head.
The dishes here are not elaborate, which is not to say they're simple: a lot of cooking and thinking go into devising a menuful of food that is right for this country house environment, is simultaneously sophisticated and fairly straightforward and takes advantage of both Ms. Hartnett's and Mr. Holder's talents -- and the good local produce. They're off to a fine start and I'd love to check in again later in the year.
On our second night, we took a taxi to Lime Wood's sister hotel, The Pig, in whose restaurant all produce comes from no more than 25 miles away. You too should go there: it's great fun, the food is good and you'll be well fed. Too well, perhaps, so be ready to cry "Uncle!" and leave some of your dinner uneaten. They serve fabulous bread, by the way.
A surprising thing about Lime Wood is that it is not terribly expensive for a standard double room, at least compared with equivalently luxurious hotels in cities. If you call at the last minute and if they have rooms available, they'll let them go for £195 ($290), which of course gives you full access to the spa (treatments are extra); the usual "entry level" rate is £295 ($440), and fancier rooms and suites in any of the hotel's several buildings can get very costly indeed.
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Lime Wood http://www.limewoodhotel.co.uk/home/. Beaulieu Road, Lyndhurst, Hampshire SO43 7FZ, England; +44 (0) 23 8028 7177; email@example.com. Double rooms start at £295 (£195 for last-minute vacancies). Dinner for two with a modest wine about £125 ($185).
The Pig http://www.thepighotel.com/. Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst, Hampshire SO42 7QL, England; +44 (0) 1590 62235. Dinner for two with a modest wine about £100 ($150).