The Restaurant at Lifehouse, Frinton: Med-Style Menus & Glorious Garden Views
A spa might seem an unlikely place to head for a slap-up dinner, however, Lifehouse Spa & Hotel in Thorpe-le-Soken has installed a seasoned chef whose menu allows for healthy but still flavoursome choices. On a summer’s night, sat overlooking the gardens, an aspect of the destination spa ten minutes from coastal Frinton that improves as it matures each year, it’s idyllic. I reviewed Lifehouse when it first opened eight years ago and the change has been dramatic.
There’s nothing left of the Georgian manor once at the core of the historic Listed Thorpe Hall Gardens, in turn, surrounded by 130-acre grounds. Instead, the Scandi-style spa hotel for adults only couldn’t be more of a contrast with polished concrete floors, an open-plan design with areas flowing into one another and natural daylight streaming in - although the blackened wood is pure rural Essex. But the gardens are a focus wherever you are, from long light-filled corridors leading to the bistro-style restaurant to the many spa treatment rooms and Nordic-style bedrooms upstairs. Former lady of the manor, Viscountess Byng was a passionate botanist whose gardens were a reference to her many years of travel.
Although this is a spa, there aren’t any white towelling-robed guests during dinner as this is the only place where you can’t wear them. I’m here with my sister just for dinner and a chance to catch up without overindulging. The evening gets off to an, er fiery start, as while the executive chef Ugo Simonelli (picture, below) does his rounds of the restaurant, amiably stopping for a chat at our table he calmly points out that my sister’s menu is on fire. The corner had dipped into the tea light in the centre of the table. He quickly fetches another and we blow out the tea light in case it happens again. It’s tempting to make a lot of chargrilled jokes but I’ll resist. To be honest, this isn’t the worst of our shared clumsiness; the same sister once scalded her leg with hot coffee, before dropping her three kids off at separate schools then, finally, taking herself to casualty.
If you were here to lose weight, address health issues or have a restricted diet there are Detox and Weight Loss Menus designed by Sue Davis, the resident naturopath and Executive Chef Ugo Simonelli, (pictured, below) whose impressive kitchen CV includes the Kulm Hotel St Moritz and the Belmond Villa San Michele in Florence. But more impressive to me is his birthplace - Naples - one of my favourite foodie cities of all time.
Given the chef’s heritage and background plus the well-known health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, naturally, this is the style of food here. But he ensures there’s no meagre element to the menu. Simonelli’s Neapolitan roots, a city so obsessed with food that it flatters its women by affectionately calling them rum babas and dresses pizzas with fresh mussels and anchovies fished straight from the Bay of Naples that circles the city, it’s no wonder the menu is awash with local seafood and ingredients.
So you’ll find starters and pasta dishes grouped together such as antipasti sharing mezze, arborio risotto and potato ravioli; then ‘healthy mains’ such as seafood stew, £18, which my sister orders which envelopes red mullet, king prawns, cod, mussels in a rich tomato sauce topped with porcini mushrooms and smokey aioli. My sister gives it the seal of approval for being ‘delicate and fresh.’ I order the fillet of cod with a roasted tomato, chickpea and fennel sauce, which is satisfying but perhaps less pretty than it could have been. We share two spa-suitable deserts - pleasingly-pink strawberry mousse with a light prosecco jelly and three scoops of lactose-free sorbets flavoured with lemon, raspberry and mango, both £6.50. Neither are too sweet but still fulfil the need for something sugary after a meal.
Sated, it’s tempting to head upstairs for a massage in one of the 35 treatment rooms, a bit like Goldilocks having a nap after she’d eaten all the porridge, however, we’ve children waiting at home. The spa indulgence will have to keep for another day (and naturally we'll make sure my sister's treatment room is candle-free).