Its former head chef, Matt Davies, led from the front and was at the centre of all things gastronomic in Staffordshire before his departure last year. The Moat House’s owner, Chris Lewis, meanwhile, has continued his family’s ownership with distinction.
The venue has been with his family since 1955 and the present leader has overseen his company’s expansion in recent years. It now has a number of properties in the region, including The Red Lion, The Dog & Doublet and The Bank House.
The Moat House has always been the diamond in its crown, a luxurious venue where people can enjoy special occasions. And yet, sadly, our Saturday night dinner did not quite live up to previous visits.
Imprecise cooking, over-priced food and unfocused service took the shine off a number of impressive dishes and good work by some of the front of house team. By the end of the evening, the Moat House had flattered to deceive.
Let’s go to the marks first. The Moat House might reasonably expect to receive a four or five mark.
And so, if we start from a notional ten, we’ll deduct half a mark for sloppy service, one mark for a prohibitive pricing policy and one mark for error-strewn dishes.
It retains marks for good sourcing, for decent front of house (from the two senior staff) and a number of dishes that were thoroughly enjoyable. But seven it is, rather than nine or ten.
We’d arrived at the venue a little early but rather than going to our table on a relatively quiet evening we were shown into the bar to wait. I understand fully the need for restaurants to stage their covers, so that the chefs aren’t overwhelmed with orders at, say, 7pm or 7.30pm. Those rules apply when busy. But when the dining room is half full, the sensible thing is to show guests to their table and send menus – rather then send them away for a drink they don’t want.
We were eating on Gourmet Night – though hadn’t realised when we’d made the booking. The lady who’d booked us by phone hadn’t made it clear and we’d not thought it necessary to read the website’s small print to find out what we’d be charged. In our case, it was £39.50 for two courses. And unless you’re Mitsuhiro Araki, that’s way, way, way too much. More of that later.
We eventually entered the dining room at 7.40pm and left at 9.39pm. Let’s not split hairs, we’ll call it a two-hour dining service. During that time, we ate two courses and gave up on dessert. There were whistles and bells – average bread, a small pot of soup and a too-sweet sorbet – but service was indubitably slow and expensive.
The evening started with bread and butter. It was introduced as house sourdough but was mediocre in quality. A small soup, garnished with fried shallots, was pleasant and had been sweetened with cider, though the shallots were slightly overcooked and therefore a little bitter.
My partner’s starter was an artichoke dish, featuring a veloute, white beans, a crispy quail’s egg, artichoke crisps and winter truffle. It was decent, though somehow seemed less than the sum of its parts. My starter made a belated entrance. I’d ordered a beetroot dish but instead received a black pudding dish with foie gras. I sat, bemused, for a minute or so. Then a flustered waiter appeared and whipped it away before belatedly delivering the beetroot dish. It was worth the wait, just about. A beetroot panna cotta was served with goat’s cheese, burnt orange and fennel pollen, making for a light and enjoyable start.
And then we waited. And waited. And waited. A too-sweet blood orange sorbet distracted us momentarily and then the mains arrived. One was good, one was not. My pork fillet was a tiny bit over and was served with a creamy cauliflower cheese puree, a savoury savoy cabbage and bacon mix, a delicious jus and a small oblong of breaded, fried shoulder. The confit potato was funny – too small, too mushy and overcooked – but it was otherwise a good dish.
My partner’s plaice was not. A crispy oyster and charred baby leeks, along with potato and tarragon dumplings couldn’t disguise the central failing – the fish was overcooked and mushy. Not good.
We skipped dessert and ordered the bill. It was £79.90 for food, plus drinks.
There was no discretion for staff to deduct the desserts, nor did we ask – and, for all the arguments about needing to raise revenues by charging more on busy nights – we felt stung. The same dishes would have cost £54.45 on an a la carte offering and the staff hadn’t pointed out the Gourmet pricing policy when we’d booked, as they might have. If my maths serves me correctly, we’d paid an extra 46.7 per cent for our courses by eating on a Saturday, even though there’d been a small soup and sorbet thrown in. Whichever way you look at it, it’s not a good look.
The Moat House remains capable of producing good food, service and an enjoyable customer experience – sadly, when we visited it didn’t.