I first encountered Hywel Jones, then head chef at Foliage in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, when I was a judge on a TV cookery show. Skinny, seriously Welsh and much younger than his opponent, he calmly made some perfect fresh pasta and filled it with something delicious, while his much-lauded rival panicked in front of the cameras and overcooked the foie gras.
That was nearly 20 years ago: since then, the television programme has long gone, the flustered chef has retired and Foliage is now Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner. Jones, meanwhile, after a stint at Pharmacy in Notting Hill (also defunct), has been cooking at Lucknam Park, a grand old country house hotel in Wiltshire, for the past 14 years. In the process, he has earned a Michelin star and – last year – the honour of having the restaurant named after him. He was, I thought, overdue a visit.
There is more than a whiff of grandeur about the 18th-century Palladian mansion, approached by a mile-long avenue of lime and beech trees, but the light, airy, elegant dining room is relaxed and friendly. Service does not miss a beat; neither does the kitchen. Jones has the enviable knack of putting ingredients on the plate so that they seem to have known each other for years: a Scotch quail egg, for instance, with a squash espuma and an inspired, sour-sweet cherry vinegar jelly. Or a small slab of cured salmon with a perfect little oyster croquette; or one plump, hunchbacked langoustine set between a smoky ham croquette and an ethereal mound of whipped celeriac.
The presentation is clean, on white crockery; the flavours profound. A delicate, rose-skinned fillet of mullet basks in an intense sauce of fennel, tomato and saffron, like a supercharged soupe de poisson, tender little squid rings adding sweetness and bite; impeccable hand-rolled curls of macaroni (he has not lost the touch) loll nonchalantly on a buttery tranche of turbot, the sauce rich with crab and fragrant with truffle.
Rolled pork belly plays happily alongside seared foie gras, warmly spiced apple and tiny leeks, a potato purée of Robuchon-like silkiness served alongside; loin of Brecon venison (you can take the boy out of Wales…) is served blushing pink, with girolles, smoked onions, chestnuts and a slug of sloe gin adding an autumnal lustre. Pudding – a sinfully delightful assembly of crème brûlée, Yorkshire strawberries and strawberry doughnuts – is equally accomplished.
This is superb, confident cooking from a chef who, though refreshingly unassuming, is at the very top of his profession. A lot can happen in 20 years – The Gannet is now more generously upholstered and a little greyer around the feathers – but the still rake-thin Jones has simply got better and better. Never trust a skinny chef? You can trust this one.