Holkham: The Victoria

Sarah BrealeyIt was cold and windswept when SARAH BREALY visited at The Victoria, on the edge of the Holkham Estate, but there was still plenty to warm the heart. Even more so now the sun is shining.Sarah Brealey

It was cold and windswept when SARAH BREALY visited at The Victoria, on the edge of the Holkham Estate, but there was still plenty to warm the heart. Even more so now the sun is shining.

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Technically, the Victoria at Holkham should be called the Carpenter's Arms. It was built for, and run by, a carpenter. But it was another twist of fate that gave the hotel and pub its name and probably also its enduring appeal.

The year Thomas William Coke bought the land on which he built the new inn was the year the young Queen Victoria elevated him to the peerage, making him the first Lord Leicester.

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History owes much to this unlikely watering hole, a dignified cosmopolitan and colonial style bolt-hole for those seeking a little sanctuary - in the depths of winter before the tourist hordes descend.

Sunday, in fact, would be great a day to visit the Victoria. Take a walk along the coast and then relax in the surroundings of the quasi-colonial bar/lounge before tucking into a traditional dish with a modern twist in the dining room.

If you really want to splash out or treat yourself, you could even book yourself into one of the hotel's rooms the night before.

We went mid-week, a Thursday night, on what was our first visit to the Victoria for both of us. Neither of us had sampled the menu under the previously departed chef, Roger Hickman, who left in February to open his own restaurant in what was once Adlards in Norwich, where, incidentally, he had been head chef.

When you arrive at the Victoria there's a distinct feeling of being out in the wilds. It is on the edge of the huge Holkham estate abutting the sea. But when you walk through the door you straight away sense more of a city culture than anything to do with the windswept dunes.

The hallway, once part of the bar, is painted a Victorian billiard room green and the room signs, including one to the bar, the Holkham Tap, are traditional in style.

We had pre-dinner drinks in an extension with brass-topped tables, candles, Moroccan lamp shades, Afghan-style rugs and hand-painted murals depicting Indian characters wielding fans on the walls - presumably to cool down those British chaps doing their bit for the Empire in the days of the Raj.

There were plenty of menu options and we made our orders and became the second pair sat in the 10-table dining room, a generous sized room with more wooden floors, gentle warm yellow walls, subtle spot lighting and a series of modern seascapes. Warm fresh rolls arrived and we settled in.

We decided to stick with homespun options and picked two Holkham-grown dishes for our starters, Carpaccio of Holkham beef with beetroot and horseradish (�7) and Holkham pigeon breast with puy lentils (�7.50).

The beef was melt-in-the-mouth and the pigeon tender, except for the two small pieces of shot. Both were the right size for starters, not unnecessarily bulked up. Other options included red onion and goats cheese tartlet and seared scallops.

We were also brought a smoked mackerel pate with piccalilli amuse bouche, with strong flavours set off by the sharp piccalilli.

For main course we plumped for rack of lamb with fondant potato, braised red cabbage, root vegetables and jus (�17) and fillet of sea bass with crushed potato, pureed swede, carrots and kale (�16). Again the meat, and this time fish, were wonderfully tender and full of flavour, as were the vegetables.

Not usually a big fan of swede I enjoyed the Victoria's pureed version, especially with the seabass, though the potato fondant with the lamb was a little lacklustre.

We were not given too much or too little. The portions, together with the time they gave us to rest between courses, were well judged. In fact, the service throughout was attentive but unobtrusive - so we decided to stay for pudding too. The choice ranged from hot chocolate fondant and praline ice-cream to prune and frangipane tart.

We picked vanilla pannacotta with roast rhubarb and cardamom, citrus lime mousse with passion fruit sorbet and tuile biscuit and the latter was, by far, the winner.

It was light but the taste was powerful. I could smell it across the table. The passion fruit ice-cream was a perfect accompaniment

to the lime and, despite not usually liking desserts, my guest thoroughly enjoyed it.

We left having enjoyed an evening of flavour and undisturbed chatter. Perhaps now the sun is shining we'll have to give it a try, just to be sure...

t The Victoria, Park Road, Holkham, Wells-next-the-Sea, 01328 711008, www.holkham.co.uk/victoria

t Open: Food is served 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm daily.

t Wheelchair access? Yes, through the rear courtyard and through the back door.

t Vegetarian options: Yes.


Food: ****

Service: ****

Atmosphere: *****

Family: ***