The Peacock, Rowsley, Matlock, Derbyshire Restaurant Review

If I'd been given a dozen pages for this review I doubt I could have adequately described our visit to the Peacock at Rowsley.

The evening began pleasantly enough, with a drive through the beautiful countryside to Rowsley, where the luxury hotel and award-winning double-rosette restaurant dominates the village with its old grey stone walls and leaded windows. My colleague and I were greeted by Jenni McKenzie, who manages the hotel with husband Ian, and led through to a comfortable bar for an aperitif. The first hint that we were in for something special came with the menu, and was confirmed shortly after with the arrival of an amuse bouche served on a tiny, elegant rectangular plate - a china teaspoonful of fresh Dorset crab with finely-chopped, dill-sprinkled cucumber and a shot glass of creamy, apple-laced celeriac soup topping a little disc of intensely flavoured port jelly, garnished with basil oil. You see my problem? We're not even on the starter yet.

It's easier to describe the setting. While the bar was woody and rustic, the hotel's decor was of a style that perfectly complemented the building, restrained yet elegant.

Back to the food, which is under the control of the bright young chef Dan Smith. After nibbling at a selection of freshly-baked bread served with tiny glass jugs of olive oil from Lecce and 12-year-old balsamic vinegar, as well as some almost white French butter, my colleague had chosen, from a menu of six starters and six mains, 'a warm rabbit salad, with white asparagus panna cotta and gribiche' (which, for those like us who don't already know, is a sauce made with capers, finely chopped asparagus, fish and egg, pungent and piquant, a delicious counterpoint to the mild rabbit flavour). The food, served on a long rectangular plate, was more than just a first course, it was a work of art. Two pink and meaty cylinders of rabbit breast, another of rolled and shredded confit leg meat, cunningly wrapped in thin shreds of crispy potato, a tiny liver and the asparagus panna cotta, a triumph of delicacy and texture, shared the plate with thin vertical slices of green asparagus, white asparagus tips and the gribiche, all garnished with nasturtium leaves. The price of this ambrosia was �10.25. I'll describe what I chose for my starter in detail so you can appreciate just how much skill, creativity, great ingredients and above all, passion, went into everything that emerged from the Peacock's kitchen.

My choice was the smoked eel dish at �9.25, in which the delicate fish sat on a cushion of celeriac remoulade, joined by an eel croquette on its own bed of Granny Smith pur�e, and a little pot of beautifully flavoured eel soup which hid a poached quail's egg. We drank a single glass of wine each with the first two courses, my colleague's an intensely fruity Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc 2007, which filled the mouth with citrus gooseberry flavours. I had the Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, full of plummy vanilla and with an intense bouquet, soft and mellow. The wine list has a good selection of bottles and half-bottles to suit all pockets and tastes, several available by the glass too.

For our main courses I could just write 'My colleague had the monk fish'. But you know that wouldn't be the end of it. A plump, juicy piece of the freshest fish (delivered daily) sat on a moist bed of fennel risotto, topped with an other-worldly spike of air-dried (for two days!) fennel, with, on the side, a neat wafer-thin puff pastry base bearing dried, jewel-like cherry tomatoes topped with melted parmesan. The fennel theme was enhanced with Pernod foam, the plate yet another work of art at �24.50. I'd fancied beef, a fillet that was perfectly cooked as I'd ordered, with a long cylinder of shredded, long-braised oxtail encased in deep-fried breadcrumbs too. It was served with some creamed celeriac, mushroom duxelles hiding under a disc of celeriac and the smallest, tenderest chanterelle mushrooms scattered around the plate. The ruby red wine sauce served with it gained its intense flavour from cooking over a long period of reduction, we learned later as we quizzed Ian on how on earth he could produce such flavours.

The pudding menu almost reduced my colleague to tears. She chose a dish of home-cooked apricots, pistachio parfait, apricot sorbet and honeycomb, a golden mixture of textures and flavours that was obviously the work of someone who cared deeply about the combination and presentation of ingredients - innovative, contemporary and zinging with flavour, as well as being technically excellent (�7.25). I heard myself asking for the assiette of desserts, a slightly piggy option at �7.95 as I was already fairly full. When it arrived, one of the pleasantly efficient waiters was on hand to talk me through the plate. There were five tiny (thank goodness) portions, all lined up for my delectation, starting with vanilla panna cotta with sliced strawberries and honeycomb pieces. Then there was a chocolate and vanilla pav� with fresh raspberries, sheltering under a lid of thin, caramelly filo pastry. Next, a chocolate orange mousse, which I was worried about as chocolate can be the last straw, waistband-wise. But this was as light as a feather, with small pieces of orange throughout and some intensely fresh orange jelly at the bottom. I have to admit I passed the next pud to my colleague. I've never been able to get over my school dislike of rice pudding and even though this one was turret-shaped, flavoured with my favourite coconut and topped with mango, I just couldn't. Sorry, Dan. Finally, a most unusual combination of flavours that I loved: melon, sour cream and mint, topped with pistachio, which cleaned the palate and left me feeling refreshed. A naughty but small glass of dessert wine, a Chilean Santa Rita Late Harvest Gewrtztraminer, which combined sweetness with the tang of grapefruit, accompanied my dessert.

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Following the meal, which had been served with the utmost professionalism and good humour, we made our way into the lounge for coffee and a chat with Ian and Jenni. They've been together, both professionally and personally, for many years and it's obviously a combination that works. Ian not only manages the hotel and restaurant but, a trained chef, also unleashes his talents on the Sunday lunch clientle and plays a large part in the menu selection. What shone through was the commitment and concern the couple and their staff share for the Peacock. Not just a successful hotel and restaurant but a delicious way of life.

The Peacock at Rowsley, Bakewell Road, Rowsley Tel: 01629

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