THE best holidays are those where you lose all track of time, blissfully unaware even what day of the week it is.
That was the sensation at the Terrace restaurant at the Montagu Arms in Beaulieu when, convinced it was still early evening with hours to spare, I was jolted back to weekday reality by a glance at my watch telling me it was in fact nearly 10pm.
I’ve visited before and, in many ways, the venue is unchanged. It still has the wood panelling, beautiful gardens, and country house atmosphere which, in the heart of the New Forest on a balmy evening, creates its own balmy bubble.
But there’s a difference in the kitchen where the well-respected Matt Tomkinson has made way for Matthew Whitfield, the 30-year-old up-and-coming new head chef fresh from New York where he worked at the three-Michelin star Eleven Madison Park.
The change hasn’t deterred the Terrace’s loyal fan club of regulars, apparently – who I understand only took a little convincing about the updated style before both sides settled for a happy compromise.
It’s no surprise they kept the faith. There’s always a little extra anticipation with a meal there, having boasted a Michelin star until 2016. With an inspector visiting recently (according to the famous guide on Twitter), managers have their fingers crossed to be back in the big league when the results are announced in the autumn.
— The MICHELIN Guide (@MichelinGuideUK) May 22, 2019
The Terrace is suitably expensive (there is the less pricy option of Monty’s Inn next door) but it’s worth the experience, whether you’re booking for a special event, something out of the ordinary, or have deeper pockets and just fancy a regular treat.
A pre-dinner lemonade (£3) and gin and tonic (£12) on a plump sofa give the chance to nibble first on olives and nuts and then, as we flick through the menu, a trio of tasty amuse bouche – one particularly memorable as a sweet mouthful evoking the most delicious cottage pie.
We can’t resist the seven-course tasting menu (£90) – greedily discarding the smaller option of five mini-servings (£70) – and at the table we’re first presented with a petite ramekin of foamy fish soup. Balanced, subtle and fresh, it’s a hint of the crafted flavours to come.
We both opt for a fresh New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (£8.50 a glass) which goes well with the next course (and my dish of the night): grilled lemon sole with seashore vegetables.
The velvety sauce of crème fraiche and vin jaune is poured precisely into the heart of the plate by the waiter, who goes on to cheerfully present each regularly changing dish with impressive memory.
A meatier proposition follows with yielding pork belly and confit cheek accompanied with hazelnut, poached rhubarb and pickled celery hinting to cut through.
Duck is next – a honey-glazed breast with crunchy Szechuan pepper, plus ginger and buttery carrots, and joined by a little extra shredded duck in a rich choux farci parcel of cabbage.
Each dish is small but the gap between servings gives a break to savour the next – this time, an impressive cheese trolley offering plenty of choice off the beaten track.
A fresh kaffir lime leaf sorbet cleanses the pallet with spiced pineapple, before the finale of the Terrace chocolate bar – which wears its decadence lightly – and a sensational milk sorbet.
A decaf coffee and berry tea in the lounge (plus a final indulgence of foamed and dark chocolates) cap off our evening which, amid the parade of distractions, has lengthened into night.
Time flies when you’re having fun.