Restaurant Review: Savanna, St Albans

Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne experiences the latest fine-dining experience in St Albans

WORD is getting around, but it's still a surprise to walk into the Black Lion Inn in St Albans and find a fine-dining restaurant of the quality of Savanna. The building dates from the 1700s and the handsome restored frontage looks the part, but inside all is trendily modern with ancient beams set off by bead curtains and sympathetic lighting.

Savanna is only part of the story. The inn has kept its popular bar area and upstairs are 16 newly-renovated bedrooms, but for the purposes of this story the emphasis is on the restaurant operation, where recently-arrived head chef Paul Mason is at work.

His CV includes service at the likes of Thackeray's, Le Gavroche and Tom Aitken's restaurant in South Kensington, and a classical background shows in his winter-season menu, where award-winning estate venison is just one highlight. This, however, is not just venison - it comes crusted in sloes and served with glazed fondants, curly kale, beetroot essence, wild huckleberries and - yes - grated chocolate.

This was one of our choices. For the other main, we picked oven-roasted halibut on a bed of coriander bean salsa with a trio of stuffed pate pan and pepper dew and cappuccino of smoked milk. While some trimmings were unfamiliar or unusual in their surroundings, the gamble paid off to produce two satisfying and interesting dishes.

The list of five starters is equally imaginative. Our choices were native lobster bisque with crayfish Chantilly, toasted almonds and basil bubbles, plus a mosaic of Ashridge Estate game with date puree, celeriac and pear remoulade and sourdough.

For dessert we selected the terrine of Valrhona chocolate with truffle-roasted milk ice cream, cherry compote and pistachio crumbs for one, and clementines with clove oil and chervil panacotta, served with brioche ice cream, for the other.

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The meal began with three kinds of bread and an amuse-bouche of a warm winter root vegetable salad with celeriac and truffle veloute. As an added treat, there was also a pre-dessert in the shape of a miniature strawberry cornetto.

Savanna is still a work in progress but seems to have started well in its latest manifestation. There is clearly imagination and dedication in play and the food is unusual enough and good enough to command attention.

Savanna at The Black Lion Inn 198 Fishpool StreetSt Albans AL3 4SB01727

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