If you had some type of job at the turn of the century, you probably know The Haycock in Wansford. It must have once been an important post office. A large, sprawling confection of honeyed stone, squatting on the side of the A1, “conveniently situated”, as the memo always pointed out, between your London offices and whatever part of the north your clients came from. I remember sales conferences, pitches and presentations. I’ve been drinking to kidney failure with the marketing departments of half the country’s fast-moving consumer goods companies, and what sticks in my mind is the carpet – the texture of a sliced white bread, dipped in beer and with a pattern of mixed chestnuts that would have given you a hangover even if you didn’t already.
I must have walked past a thousand times since but didn’t realize until the whistleblower reached my whatsapp that someone had bought the place and redone it. Not only was grim old Haycock now magnificent, but it contained Prevost, a first-class restaurant run by chef Lee Clarke.
What they have done is remarkable. They had to rip up the carpet and dump it in a disused mine shaft before spending some hefty money on fixtures and fittings. Architectural elements were uncovered, cleaned and “highlighted”. Beautiful new curved walls of ancient stone lead you past a glazed show cellar to a conservatory dining room full of highly trained and uniformed staff.
The usual preliminary snacks included, among others, a macaroon filled with pork belly and a somewhat special mushroom broth.
The first course of eight on the tasting menu was “Lincolnshire Poacher Ravioli, Tokyo Turnip, Mushroom, Nasturtium.” I had hopeful visions of a big ball of cheese that would stay in my stomach like ballast, but in fact they were smooth little spheres of the most intriguing texture, like something from the trolley. dim sum, and oddly light.
The “carrot tartare” was also innovative in terms of texture. The carrot was finely chopped and bound with carrot essence, then sandwiched between tiles and topped with grated white chocolate and a dollop of caviar. I think somewhere in the Top Chef code of practice it says something with tiles and a dollop of caviar is mandatory before course 4, and I’m glad the chef fully complied. It’s a cracking combination.
Two fish courses followed. Large chunks of lobster tail, interspersed with chunks of pork jowl and pearl onions, were spread around the plate, then finished with an extraordinarily rich and meaty jus. The overall quality of the cooking was so high that I questioned my judgment that the juice was too reduced. A piece of halibut poached, flambéed and bathed in a pool of airy shrimp velouté seemed like a great treat.
Then came the Goosnargh guinea fowl. The brisket had been poached and then covered in a crust of breadcrumbs rather than being cooked underneath – an interesting technical trick but perhaps leading to a disappointing result. Other pieces of the bird, better flavored, were stuffed into a cabbage roll, which showed all the punch the breast lacked. The plate was embellished with another meaty juice, which unfortunately reinforced my preliminary judgment. I don’t think it’s a technical error; I think the chef and I disagree on how much reduction should be taken.
“Baron Bigod, oatmeal cake, marinated gooseberry” came as a cheese dish before dessert and was, by far, the best dish of the evening. Baron Bigod is an utterly brilliant British Brie-style cheese that, in this case, had been made into a smooth ice cream, served sandwiched between two thin oat crisps and sprinkled with currant jelly. I could easily have eaten four.
The salvage operation of this splendid old building was well thought out and, I believe, successful. It is an incredible project and deserves a restaurant of this ambition. There were remarkable parts in the meal, and the little flaws that there were will disappear as the confidence of the kitchen grows. And the new carpets, thank God, are beautiful.
Prevost @ Haycock
The Haycock Manor Hotel, Wansford-in-England, Peterborough PE8 6JA; 01780 782223; haycock.co.uk
Eight/five/three-course tasting menus at £85/£65/£40
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