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BIRTHDAY LUNCH AT LIME WOOD by Niamh Barker

Posted in FOOD + DRINK By Maggie O'Sullivan

I first visited Lime Wood, in Hampshire, shortly after it opened its doors in November 2009. My husband and I get very excited about hotel openings. The experts were confidently predicting that Lime Wood would be one of the UK’s top country house hotels within five years, but we couldn’t wait until then. We booked a table for dinner as soon we could. Perhaps we should have waited. On our first visit – and our second and third – we were disappointed by the food and the service in the restaurant. So why did we keep returning? Because we loved the painstakingly and beautifully restored Regency manor house. We loved the rural setting in the heart of the New Forest. And like those experts, we had a feeling it would get there. Fast-forward five years, and Lime Wood definitely has got there. The key was to team up two of the UK’s most brilliant chefs: Angela Hartnett (I reviewed her restaurant, Murano, last year) and Lime Wood’s own Luke Holder, above. The dining room has also had a makeover, masterminded by top restaurant designer Martin Brudnizki, and is now much more in keeping with the luxurious but quirky décor of the rest of the hotel. It proved the perfect venue for my recent birthday lunch with seven girlfriends.First we gathered in the beautiful courtyard, above, with its architecturally impressive sliding glass roof, for a glass of champagne. We had arranged to start early to accommodate various rugby and hockey matches in the afternoon, but we all arrived separately. Staff were impeccable, producing a glass of fizz as if by magic every time another guest appeared. Soon the courtyard was filled with flowers and gifts, until it began to resemble a local branch of Interflora. The lovely staff swept everything away to a safe place and led us through to lunch. The dining room, above, is now light and stylish, designed to cosset rather than impress. Like the rest of the hotel, it boasts some impressive artwork, including original Cocteau drawings and photographs by Mario Testino, but the overall feel is homely and comfortable. HH&Co is not a Michelin-starred restaurant, nor is it aspiring to be one. As Lime Wood says, this is all about ‘fun dining’ not fine dining. Using fresh, local ingredients wherever possible, Angela Hartnett has built a menu around Italian peasant dishes such as pasta, polenta, and inexpensive cuts of meat like pork cheeks. Everything is cooked with impeccable finesse. We dined from the set lunch menu and found the portions to be small (though not overly so) and perfectly formed. Service was more ‘local professional’ than ‘London slick’ but we were there to chat and didn’t need to be fussed over. Coffee was served back in the courtyard. Suffice to say, not many of us were in time for bully off/ kick off that afternoon...My sister and I have already made plans to return to Lime Wood in January: as a birthday gift to ourselves, my sister and I have booked a day at the Herb House, above, the hotel’s award-winning spa. I can’t wait to report back.

Further information, 023 8028 7177; Lime Wood

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