Fiona Adams samples the menu at Equus, open on racing day at Sandown Park, Esher
A day out at the races is a real treat, a glamorous slice of escapism where you can swan about in your Sunday best splashing your cash on the pampered thoroughbreds from stables up and down the country. That’s all very well, of course, but winning (and losing) money can make you extremely hungry, so it’s always wise to factor in a pit-stop – or better – a top-notch lunch for sustenance.
Sandown Park in Esher is no stranger to first-class hospitality on its race days, but aside from its party rooms and venues for group and corporate hire, the racecourse also boasts a fine restaurant. It used to be Tingle Creek, a little bit frayed around the edges like a well-worn horse blanket, but now it has been restyled, revamped and renewed in the form of Equus, a modern and airy restaurant with menus by head chef Allen Townsend that caters for parties of two to 20 diners.
The room itself is large, but sub-divided into a main dining area and ‘booths’ separated by diaphanous white drapes for tables of larger number. Lights in the ceiling resemble giant inverted sombreros (in contemporary style, of course) and the lines everywhere are clean and fresh. There is plenty of space between smaller tables, so that even as a pair you can still enjoy an intimate dining experience. Sandown employs plenty of staff in here, with waiters, bar tenders and maitre d’s (ours was Luca and he was efficient and friendly). On the day I dined, they were unobtrusive yet attentive and worked the room expertly, chatting to the guests. There is also a stylish wooden paneled bar and a fantastic view over the winning post. On a clear day all of south-west London is laid out before you, and you can see right across to the white arch of Wembley Stadium. Tote representatives are present throughout the day so if the weather is poor you can place bets from your table.
Prices start at £65 per person plus VAT and there are three packages, in escalating price order, available. The Kauto Star, Sadler’s Wells and Arkle menus are all named after the equine stars who have graced Sandown’s course and can include two or three courses, canapés, Champagne and afternoon tea. The wine list is not overpriced and the choice is good.
The menu has quite a paired down style. There are no fancy names of dishes, instead they are simply titled, for example, ‘pork’, ‘halibut’, ‘cherries’ or ‘cheese’. There is a vegetarian option in each course. Descriptions of the plates do follow and they tell you what to expect in plain English, rather than what Lord Byron might have written. You’d be hard pushed to be surprised by unwanted ingredients here.
For our starters we chose pigeon with a parsnip puree, honey stock and pearl barley, and a salad of beetroot carpaccio, goat’s cheese bonbons and candied raspberries. The pigeon was unbelievable tender, and the honey a subtle but unmistakable thread through the whole dish. The pearl barley, so difficult to get just right, had the comforting, yielding texture of risotto. My beetroot salad looked very pretty and I loved the rich bonbons, though these were cold rather than hot as I was expecting.
For our main courses my husband plumped for the British contre fillet of beef with shin croquette, date puree, horseradish foam, baby vegetables and red wine reduction. This was a hearty dish with plenty of flavour and the beef was cooked to medium perfection. It is worth noting though that the waitress didn’t ask how it should be cooked, so if you err more on the side of well-done steaks, it would be wise to point out your preference.
I went for the halibut, with lemon herb gnocchi, crab butter and wild garlic oil. I’m not usually a fan of gnocchi, but these were light and zingy with a lemony sauce. The fish was just right, pearl white and juicy, and the pak choi, oyster mushrooms and grapes that came with it added texture and a hint of sweetness. Other dishes included twice-cooked belly of pork and a butternut squash plate with mushrooms, foraged herbs and white truffle foam.
Looking back I can hardly believe we then also managed dessert and afternoon tea, but a few trips to the parade ring and down to the bookies’ stalls seemed to (temporarily, at least) aid digestion. Summoning up space we worked our way through a tasting plate (crème brulee, lemon and lime posset, and chocolate brownie) and a toffee tart tatin with Calvados ice cream. Afternoon tea served around 4pm consisted of tea and/or coffee, six dainty sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, plus a selection of macaroons and cakes (yes, I admit it, we ate them all). To say we rolled out of Sandown, and down to the car, is not much of an exaggeration. We were stuffed!
A trip to Sandown may leave you a little poorer (we had no luck on the horses), but if you dine at Equus you will certainly be rich with gastronomic satisfaction (and not have to eat again for a week).
Equus is open only on race days, but is available for private hire on non-race days. See sandown.co.uk for further information.