Review: The King’s Arms, Dorchester “exactly what we want from a landmark venue in our county town”
PUBLISHED: 16:18 20 October 2020 | UPDATED: 16:29 20 October 2020
It’s just undergone a £5m makeover - so what’s the food like at this Dorchester venue once favoured by royalty and rock stars?
I feel like Thomas Hardy would approve. Poring over the starter options for dinner at the newly reopened King’s Arms in Dorchester, I’m bumping up against several words that I’ve never encountered before – a lamb “scrumpet” served with “chermoula”. Should I play it safe and choose the sweet potato soup with Dorset goats’ cheddar, cauliflower dumplings and tarragon oil - all nouns I am familiar with? No, I’m in the hotel where Dorset’s greatest wordsmith set the bankruptcy hearing for The Mayor of Casterbridge, so tonight will be an education for my brain and tastebuds.
I’m not disappointed, in fact my whole experience of this expensively-renovated hotel is a positive one. You probably know the building already, its distinctive first and second floor windows bowing out over High East Street. Closed for five years, it’s had a fabulous £5m makeover by the Somerset-based Stay Original Co. the team behind The Grosvenor Arms in Shaftesbury. Now it’s finally reopened in some style, with a spacious ground floor bar and restaurant open all day and 20 bedrooms, with a further 14 bedrooms due to open next year.
During its 300-year history, this landmark hotel has welcomed some illustrious guests including Queen Victoria, King George IV, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and tonight me and my friend Jason. We’re both dads to 18-ish-month-olds, so the prospect of a responsibility-free night of good food and uninterrupted conversation might well colour our opinions. What we find is a classy, understated without being austere establishment. In the restaurant, all polished wooden floors and muted pastel-painted walls, we can see the culinary magic happening in the open kitchen. And, in these corona-conscious times, there’s a divider so we’re socially distanced from our dining neighbours.
My scrumpet turns out to be a a very tasty cylinder of shredded lamb, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. The chermoula is a lemony, cumin dressing - a well-balanced choice with the creamy aubergine and spiced yogurt. Jason’s perfectly cooked scallops with cauliflower purée are complimented by smoky notes of chorizo and a hit of acidity from the pickled apple.
We briefly dally with never-tried-before dishes such as slow cooked rotisserie pork belly with ’nduja, dates and honey, or oyster mushrooms and aubergine shawarma with chana chaat and muhammara – it was good to see interesting vegan and veggie options. We plump for two classics. I tuck into Daily Market Fish – a meaty fillet of halibut caught off Weymouth, the smoky chicken and caper butter providing salty pops amongst the celeriac, wild mushrooms, chard and lemon which accompany the fish. Jason’s dry aged Jurassic Coast rump steak took meaty to a whole new level. Succulent and thick, it came with crispy onion ring, roasted tomatoes, garlic and parsley butter, finger-sized, fluffy, triple-cooked chips, and a creamy Blue Vinny sauce that got a big thumbs up.
Somehow, we found room for a Dorset apple semolina tart served with honey and ricotta ice cream and apple and fennel seed puree, and a West Country Cheese selection with apple, honey and chipotle chutney. Our waitress explained that one of the cheeses, Ford Farm’s Dorset Red, is made by the chef’s uncle. And in a way that perfectly encapsulates our visit. The food, the service, the styling, was all top quality. But with a menu celebrating great local produce, and such a warm and friendly welcome, it’s also unapologetically “Dorset”. Exactly what you want from a landmark venue in our county town.
To book a table please call 01305 238238 or click here to book a table online