Bridge House Hotel, Beaminster, Dorset Bridge House Hotel, Beaminster, Dorset

Restaurant Review

Mary Mills finds new owners making an impression at this established hotel and restaurant

Reproduced by kind permission of ‘Dorset’ magazine

Mark and Joanna Donovan have undergone quite a change in lifestyle since last August, when they both chose to leave their established careers to take over the Bridge House Hotel & Restaurant. You see, not only had they no experience in the catering trade and so had this to get to grips with, they’ve also had a baby since taking over. In any normal household a newborn baby would be change enough to cope with, so you can well imagine how the Donovan’s have had to hit the ground running.

Fortunately, some of the staff of the hotel stayed on after the change in ownership, and not least the most important of these the chef and manageress which must have helped Mark and Joanna find their feet somewhat quicker than starting from scratch. They’ve since added a fresh young team to these key players, and already the whole unit is slick and professional, including the Donovans themselves, who manage front of house with perfect aplomb, so much so that you wouldn’t know this trade was new to them.

The Donovans plan to keep the hotel’s interior very much as it is, which is no bad thing because we’ve dined at the Bridge House before, and the comfy lounges where you can sit and leisurely sip your drink before dinner were an integral part of the hotel’s charm, and the dining room, with its soft-pink walls and its old beams, is a delight, as is the conservatory where you can dine overlooking the garden. Why change a winning formula.

The one thing that has been changed is the menu, with the addition of an à la carte to the existing table d’hôte. The new owners are determined to win back one of the AA rosettes that was lost a couple of years ago, and it’s quite clear that a certain sparkle and a great deal of thought has been put into the dishes on the revamped menus, and there’s great use of local ingredients too.

Both menus are now inventive yet unfussy, the main ingredient of most dishes simply dealt with but accompanied by some pretty unusual sauces. Take my starter from the table d’hôte menu for instance - seared scallops with cauliflower puree and balsamic vinegar. Each scallop (and there were four whoppers) sits atop its little bed of cauliflower puree, and the sweetness of both the scallop and the cauliflower is offset by the bitter-sweetness of the balsamic vinegar. Perfect. The Beard decided to eat throughout from the à la carte, and chose the spicy smoked haddock and saffron soup, which had a distinct zing to it, but a subtle smokiness that put us in mind of the smell of the log fires in the lounge a few minutes before. And I can’t move on from this course without mentioning the fantastic breads that we were offered with starters: four loaves each individually flavoured with the likes of sundried tomatoes, onion, olive, and black pepper were sliced to our requirements at the table.

A not insubstantial honey-glazed shank of local lamb served with a rich port sauce and some gloriously strong wild mushrooms followed my starter, while the Beard had fillet of local cod served with crispy potatoes and mustard lentils dressed in a warm vinaigrette. Both dishes came with gratin potatoes and vegetables, and I began to realise that Mark hadn’t been joking when he said that they’d increased the size of portions since they took over.

Well that was certainly the case with the Beard’s cheeseboard selection, from which he could have had any or all of four or five perfectly-kept Dorset or Somerset cheeses. He was only restrained from trying all of them by the fact that we were pretty damn full by now. But you’ll know that I can’t resist puddings, however full I am, so I enquired, with some trepidation, about the English pudding plate, a selection of baked custard tart, bread-and-butter pudding and treacle tart. Were they all big, would my eyes be bigger than my belly? No, I was told, they’re each just a sample of the puds in question, and so they were, three neat little rounds the size of an old half-crown set out side by side on an oblong plate, and looking delicate and scrummy enough to convince me that I could just about squeeze them in.

Replete, we left for the journey home, only to be greeted by a snowstorm outside. Huddled up against the elements, we thought how nice it would be to come back to the Bridge House in the spring when, as Mark had told us on the way out, the garden will be kitted out with tables and chairs so that diners can eat alfresco. The chefs have come up with a healthy eating menu to coincide with the garden dining. Healthy or not, I still bet you won’t go home hungry!

Sample from à la carte menu

Starters
Warm smoked salmon with double cream and chive foam £8.75
Open ravioli of West Bay crab and rocket dressed with radish salsa £9.25
Pan-seared wood pigeon breast on creamy spinach risotto and dressed in white wine and chestnut sauce £9.25

Main Courses
Fillet of West Country beef in Chianti sauce with spinach and a Parmesan  basket of white Tuscan beans £24
Roasted filler of wild seabass with chive crème fraiche, Jerusalem artichoke rosti and sautéed potatoes £22.50
Venison on bed of red cabbage with a potato and apple gratin, black pepper and cider sauce £22.50

Puddings
Trio of Bridge House chocolate puddings £8.50
White chocolate and liquorice panacotta with frozen berries £8.50
Baked figs with honey and whiskey ice cream £7.25

Summing Up
A classy hotel restaurant under new ownership, serving high-quality food

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