It's all change at the George hotel on the Isle of Wight following the arrival of Irish chef Liam Finnegan, who has been rising through the fine-dining ranks with impressive speed. Fiona Sims reports.
When Michelin-starred chef Kevin Mangeolles upped sticks from the George hotel on the Isle of Wight to open his own place on the north Norfolk coast, many mourned - the island doesn't do much in the way of posh dining and his departure was a blow. But instead of trying to find a chef to fill Mangeolles' shoes, the hotel's co-owner Jeremy Willcock decided on a change of direction - a casual brasserie.
Three years on and Willcock has decided it is time to crank things up again and move the food into a different league, so the search was on for a chef with an elegant touch who could elevate the offering into something that might just get the Michelin inspectors talking again.
Cue Liam Finnegan. This is the first head chef position for the 25-year-old from County Louth near Dublin, Ireland. He's been rising through the fine-dining ranks with impressive speed, spending a year and a half working under Michael Caines at the two-Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Devon, then securing a position as sous chef at the Caines-managed restaurant at the Bath Priory hotel. He also managed to fit in a stage with one of his culinary heroes, three Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire, in Paris, who would have offered him a permanent job had his French been better.
Thankfully for us, Gagnaire didn't get his hands on Finnegan, though he remains a big influence, along with Thomas Keller and John Campbell. "I've got all the books," he says, while adding lobster shells to a stockpot for his shellfish velouté, which is served with pan-fried scallops for lunch (£6.50).
Much has changed on the seasonally changing menu since Finnegan arrived at the end of June, though prices are still reasonable enough - £6.50 to£9 for starters, £14.50 to £35.95 (for a whole lobster) for the mains, and all desserts at £6.95.
The new salads on the lunch menu are going down a storm, from smoked salmon, lemon and caper berry to chicken, vintage cheddar and cherry tomato, at £7.50 for a starter and £13.95 for a main. So, too, is the all-British cheese board at £8.50, plus £3 for a glass of mead.
Lunch main courses skip from Isle of Wight minute steak with Café de Paris butter, hand cut frites, fine beans and vine tomatoes (£16.50), to pea, asparagus and mint risotto with pea shoots and shaved Parmesan (£14.50). Puds include cherry panna cotta with macerated summer berries. Finnegan can't stop talking about his desserts, which include a classy confit orange and chocolate mousse served with an orange sorbet. "I love doing desserts - they're simply worded, but there's a lot more to them," he says.
He's also getting excited about the local produce. The Isle of Wight does good lobster and crab, both of which Finnegan uses, and sea bass, too. "I buy my line-caught bass from a guy called Bill who goes out every morning - it's so fresh you can't prep it. It's so important to use local suppliers," he says.
Finnegan adds Ben Brown's asparagus and strawberries, and Mottistone beef to the list of local highlights, and promises to display a list of key suppliers on his menu shortly. "I need to explore the local meat further - I can't wait until the game season and I'm excited by the idea of local mushrooms," he says.
A new dish for autumn is a starter of local pigeon and foie gras terrine. Finnegan will sous-vide the meat, replacing the confited pork shoulder currently being used in the dish that is layered with black pudding, spring onions and ginger (£9).
The dinner menu also includes starters such as mackerel tartare, soused beetroot and radishes, horseradish mayonnaise and balsamic vinegar (£6.50), lifted with a little five spice and a chopped shallot lime confit. There's also a home-cured bresaola, which Finnegan also raves about, served with Provençal vegetables, rocket and red chard salad, and a green peppercorn vinaigrette (£8.50).
Mains include turbot, cleverly balanced with a sweet carrot and coriander purée, and a zingy mange-tout and lime salad, and a lemongrass velouté (£21), and herb-crusted lamb rump, sweetbread, fondant potato, fricassée of broad beans and fennel, lamb jus (£15.95). There's also a seven-course tasting menu at £65.
"The dishes are pretty much where I want them to be," says Finnegan.
The George hotel
Quay Street, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Tel: 01983 760331
What's on the menu
• Pan-fried scallops, pea purée, confit pork belly with pea mint velouté, £9.50
• Angel hair linguini with summer girolles, £6.50
• Pressed terrine of pork and foie gras with apple and ginger purée, £9
• Sea bass, artichoke, basil shoots and gazpacho, £19.50
• Isle of Wight beef sirloin, confit shallots, bone marrow galette and Bourguignon jus, £28
• Pan-roasted Isle of Wight lobster with lobster sauce and summer vegetables, £29.95
• Peach melba, £6.95
• Cherry and vanilla panna cotta with Granny Smith sorbet, £6.95
• Orange confit and chocolate mousse with orange sorbet, £6.95