Restaurant Review: Offley Place, Great Offley

Richard Cawthorne reports on the continuing transformation of Offley Place over lunch with owner Hamid Sabahipour


Offley Place Country House HotelKings Walden RoadGreat OffleyHitchin SG5 3DX01462

HAMID Sabahipour arrived in Baldock 25 years ago with a partner seeking a business to buy. With little money, they were moving northward from London, where they had been working, until they found somewhere they could afford. Baldock it was and the business was a Greek restaurant, Zeus.The partners later split up, but Hamid stayed. Zeus prospered, enabling him a year ago to buy Offley Place, a 17th-century manor house in 27 acres at Great Offley near Hitchin. 'What it is now is as I envisaged it,' he says. 'I wanted a country house hotel with nice bedrooms, a nice restaurant, somewhere of quality where people would feel comfortable and at home.'He acknowledges the past year has been 'interesting'. Formerly a family seat, Offley Place had fallen into the hands of Hertfordshire County Council and used among other things as a teacher training college. 'There were the inevitable teething problems,' Hamid says, 'but what has been encouraging is that we have been able to build up a hard core of regular customers who support us.'Over lunch, prepared by chefs Nicholas Kendrick and Michael St Johns, Hamid expands on future plans. He has added a conservatory, originally planned as an extension to the dining offer but highly popular as well for wedding parties, and he has permission for 30 more bedrooms to add to the existing 16 and four conference rooms.With it all, Hamid is insisting on a level of quality he believes goes with the country house ambience. Dining chairs are larger than average. With smaller ones, he could have 120 covers but prefers to keep to 90 and 'make the dining experience more pleasant'.Special occasions include a Saturday night candlelit dinner with pianist and open fire, while guests for Sunday lunch in summer can play or watch croquet, and there is often village cricket in the field next door.As an example of what the kitchen can do, and another indication of Hamid's commitment to quality, the weekday lunch menu is balanced and tempting. For starters, guests can choose from smoked chicken Caesar salad, croutons and parmesan; roasted red pepper soup with herb cappuccino; an assiette of cured meats with rocket and olive salad; or pheasant and walnut terrine, steeped red onions and balsamic dressing.Mains include seared rump steak, sauteed new potatoes and braised red cabbage; slow-roast pork belly with chive mashed potato and ratatouille; fillet of sea bass with crushed new potatoes, carrot, grilled asparagus, spinach and lobster sauce; and mushroom and artichoke risotto with parmesan shavings and truffle oil. Desserts include dark chocolate pot, frosted fruits and pistachio biscotti; vanilla panna cotta with kumquat confit; Offley Mess; or cheese. The price is �16.50 for two courses and �20.50 for three.Hamid is as watchful over the food offering as everything else. 'Things in our industry have moved on,' he says. 'A few years ago, there were a lot of no-go areas. People now are more daring. What wins now are good local unassuming recipes. This was the reasoning behind my opening a predominantly English restaurant here, because I believe there is a lot of good English food.'With his first year at Offley Place under his belt, Hamid is looking ahead. With the product in place, now is the time to spread the word more widely. He points to the parkland around the house. 'Once people are here, they are wowed by the place,' he says. 'It is just a question of time. I am a great believer in working on your customers - if you look after the ones you have, they will go and tell others.'

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