Santo's Higham Farm, Higham, Derbyshire Restaurant Review
We arrived at Santo's Higham Farm on a freezing Monday after a quick zip up the A38 from Derby to be met with comfort, the glow of soft lights and a warm welcome from restaurant manager Guiseppe and managing director Santo.
Santos Higham Farm Hotel and Restaurant, Main Road, Higham Tel: 01773 833812Lunch 12-2pm; dinner Mon-Fri 7-9.30pm, Sat 7-10pm
We arrived at Santo's Higham Farm on a freezing Monday after a quick zip up the A38 from Derby to be met with comfort, the glow of soft lights and a warm welcome from restaurant manager Guiseppe and managing director Santo. We took our drinks into the bar where squashy sofas and deep armchairs surrounded a roaring fire. Small groups of guests awaiting the call to dine murmured pleasantly around us as we took in the surroundings. The hotel has a fascinating history: once a fully-functioning farm, the building's origins go back to around 1490. Massively thick walls, some featuring the original stonework, separate several other areas which can be glimpsed from the bar, giving a clear hint that the place is bigger than it at first seems. Fresh daffodils were everywhere, bringing the early spring indoors.
A favourite part of any dining experience is drooling over the menu, anticipation sharpening an already healthy appetite. Santo's menu was just right - not too long, but with plenty of choice for picky eaters - and offered recognisable dishes served with an imaginative twist. I was interested to see mention on the menu of the restaurant's local suppliers, which included Santo's own garden for herbs and fresh fruit, a nice touch. After a bit of negotiation, my partner finally went for salmon tartare (�6.25), while I chose Thai beef soup (�7). I was really tempted by the pan fried scallops, served with smoked ham, spinach risotto and tomato dressing, also at �7, while I knew he was torn between the pressed game terrine with home-made piccalilli and bread crote (�6), and getting in touch with his veggie side with poached potato gnocchi with gorganzola cream, fresh parmesan and roast peppers at �7. I have to admit, though, that my choice of the light, spicy broth was influenced by the fact that I'd already taken a sneaky preview at the pudding menu.
After our drinks we were taken to the dining room, which was quite a way, giving us a chance to take a look at some more of the hotel. Interesting corners and cosy arrangements of chairs gave a suggestion of how the place might be used for other events. The beamed dining room was inviting and cosy, the well-spaced tables laid with white tablecloths, red linen napkins and sparkling glassware, and the soft strains of Italian opera floated through the room. Guiseppe and his right-hand man, Vincente, bustled around and brought a selection of nutty warm rolls and poured our choice of a dry white Australian table wine, crisp, fruity and nicely chilled - the house wine.
The starters arrived with a flourish on contemporary china, in contrast with the period building. My soup looked pretty and smelt divine, with little carrot-flowers, fresh green vegetables and aromatic coriander visible beneath the surface. Lower down were more al dente vegetables and a treasure trove of small and very tender pieces of beef right at the bottom. My companion's salmon tartare was presented as a neat little tower of minced smoked salmon, topped with cream and glistening red caviar, and served with a complementary salad of mixed leaves, dill and cucumber. I wasn't offered a taste, which always indicates that a dish is too delicious to share.
Our main courses arrived, always a moment of high anticipation. He'd gone for the male favourite - pie. This was a crown of golden pastry, full of tender and juicy game, and served with gravy and a rash of sweet redcurrants, a good contrast with the richness of the meat (�11). My own choice was the catch of the day, on this Monday night pan-fried fillet of red mullet on a bed of spinach, with roast scallops and tomato butter. The fish was perfectly cooked, with a thin, crispy skin and succulent flesh, its sweetness offset by the stronger flavour of the scallop coral. The tomatoes were an intense mix of sharpness and sweetness, all melded together by the tender spinach beneath. With each dish we were served a selection of nicely cooked vegetables, including roast potatoes. Here came my only slight gripe of the evening. To my mind roast potatoes, while absolutely delicious with anything meat-related, aren't quite right with fish. But it was only one small personal thing in an otherwise great meal. Other options included roast beef fillet with black pudding fritter, tomato confit and saut�ed mushrooms (�18), pan-fried sea bass with vegetable mash and thyme butter (�16), and mascarpone, spinach and pine nut ravioli with warm Tuscan vinaigrette and pur�ed cannelini beans at �15. We also saw a couple of huge, steaming lobsters on their way to another table. But we weren't finished yet.
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We both love puddings and weren't disappointed with the selection on offer, which included chocolate and lemon fondant with lemon curd ice-cream (�6.50), an assiette of hot desserts - warm chocolate brownie, bread and butter pudding and syrup sponge - served with a jug of warm vanilla cream at �7, and Irish whiskey mousse (�6). My partner had the sticky toffee pudding and custard (�4), which rendered him temporarily speechless, while I ordered a duo of chocolate and cardamom brul�es with home-made sesame biscuits (�6). These came delicately served in two long, thin dishes on a triangular plate, garnished with blackberries and physalis. The chocolate brul�e was rich and deeply-flavoured, while spicy notes of cardamom clearly pierced the creaminess. To go with it I tried a dessert wine, a Nederburg Noble Late Harvest from South Africa - perfect!
Throughout the meal, skilfully cooked by talented young chef Ray Moody, we were expertly yet quite formally served by Vincente and earnest young waiter, Steven Smart. Restaurant manager Guiseppe was a fount of information, efficiency and enormous enthusiasm, chatting easily with other diners and ourselves. Towards the end of the meal it started to snow heavily. Perhaps we'd be marooned at Higham and have to spend the night in one of the hotel's 28 recently-refurbished bedrooms. I can think of worse fates.