The Exmouth retreat that’s fabulous for foodies
With its rural setting and some fine cuisine from Michael Caines, Lympstone Manor is perfection on a plate
Iremember how excited I was to discover Cornish fizz a few years ago. Could Camel Valley, I wondered, replace Veuve as my “house champagne” and save me more than a tenner each time I settled down to open one with Doctor Who on a Saturday evening? A first single flute in Devon, at Olga Polizzi’s Hotel Endsleigh, tasted… different. My interest was piqued. But rather like the tat you vacuum up in the souks of Marrakech in a haze of filigree and coloured glass, after I bought some and got it home, it was foul.
As I write, there are 17,500 vines being planted over nine-and-a-half acres at Lympstone Manor, the Exmouth hotel of superstar chef Michael Caines. While Caines has poured his own-brand (and excellent) champagne for years, he wants to hone a pedigree, purely English luxury experience. And why not? Despite having the hump with Cornish non-Champenoise, both Nyetimber and Chapel Down Blanc de Blancs are absolutely my cup of tea. And the British wine business is booming. Even if Caines’s plans don’t quite come to fruition in terms of quality (though studies of the terroir are in his favour), then the vines are going to bring a lovely aspect to the landscape. This will be a superb vineyard to eat in. Many believe Caines’s relatively new enterprise is already the best hotel in the country for dining, and when I visited during the preparations for the vine planting, I agreed – with some caveats.
Caines clearly wanted to refresh classic rural luxury. I didn’t feel the restrained hand of an interior designer at Lympstone: it’s a little too showy. I never need to see another twist on a dome-canopied porter’s chair as long as I live. There are suspended giant bird cages to sit in, and light fittings in the shape of branches with resin icicle details, which are borderline fun/ tacky. The wallpapers, depicting a landscape of clouds and birds to chime with an overarching ornithological theme, are digitally printed rather than hand-painted as I would have expected. Still, it all holds together well, with a pleasing, shimmering, mink colour palate.
I stayed in the Kingfisher Suite (from £570 per night), which makes great use of Georgian proportions with a huge, free-standing bath by the windows and a giant bed with mountains of pillows and cushions. But the sinks are in the bedroom, too, which I thought weird – I wanted them in the lavatory/shower room. The complimentary tray of Williams Chase gin, with a fresh lime, ice bucket and bottles of Fever-Tree, was a welcome touch. Two-way light switches were infuriating to use, seeming to do zilch in certain configurations, but they were nothing compared with the maddening LED lighting downstairs, which strobes whenever you pass your hand or a menu in front of your eyes.
The point of Lympstone Manor is, of course, Michael Caines and his head chef, Dan Gambles. Fundamentally, this is a restaurant with extraordinarily fancy rooms. Apart from the maniac LEDs, I thought the dining space was gorgeous, full of expansive banquette arrangements soundtracked by predictable ’90s coffee-table trip hop: where Air’s Moon Safari goes, Morcheeba surely follows.
The space felt impressively luxurious, sacrificing the potential of more covers for a sense of comfort and exclusivity. That feeling extended to the menu: three courses for £115, Signature Tasting Menu £140, and £85 for a wine flight – there is also a purely seafood degustation. This is flawless, delicious cooking, from the freshness of crab ravioli with grapefruit and lemon grass to the saline hit of Cornish salt cod with chorizo and samphire, and sous vide and roasted partridge. It’s also a serious culinary itinerary; the only hint of playfulness comes at dessert, when a white chocolate candle is lit, accompanied by a glass of Franz Haas Moscato Rosa that gives off the bouquet of a thousand rose petals.
For lunch the next day, I ordered from the à la carte menu: slow-cooked pheasant with lentils, pumpkin and cumin purée with red wine jus. The bird had been prepared in the same way as the partridge the night before, but there was more of it. I can’t do justice to how good this dish is – the moistness of the meat; the nostalgic and overwhelming flavour of smoky bacon crisps on the surface; the total perfection of it all. There’s nowhere for a chef to hide with a dish like this – it’s just protein and technique.
If those vines don’t work out, as long as there’s cooking like this, Lympstone Manor will still be one of the best weekend breaks for food lovers in England.
Rooms from £315 including breakfast. There is one fully accessible room. Mark travelled as a guest of GWR (0345 700 0125; gwr. com), which runs approximately 24 trains per day between London Paddington and Exeter St Davids from £19 each way.
MEET THE TEAM Mark reports on design and luxury – he likes lights that are easy to turn off, extraordinarily plush mattresstoppers and a single large cube of ice in his negroni.