15 September 2008
Having originally booked for 4 people, we changed this to 6 a few hours before we were due to arrive. My wife said the telephone staff were fine.
We arrived a few minutes after 8pm on Thursday, to find the receptionist on the phone. My impression was that she was talking to a friend. My daughter said that the receptionist had mentioned the number of covers (35), so it is possible that she was reporting to her boss. Either way, we were kept waiting for several minutes while she finished her leisurely call.
We were then shown to our table.
My wife and I have been coming here infrequently ever since it opened as Belair House some years ago. The basic design concept of minimalist modern white in a fabulous Georgian house has remained the same, although the general standard, and probably expense, of the décor has gradually improved. Originally, as Belair House, it was ridiculously expensive for out of town and fairly average food, with the result that our visits were infrequent. My oldest daughter suggested that the place would benefit from a little dusting on the ledge behind the white banquette she was sitting at. Also, it was strange, on a warm June evening, to find a radiator slightly warm, as though it had only recently been turned off.
While the waitress handed out the menus, I was explaining to my family that the last time we came, and the reason we had not been for a long time, the menu was a weird and unpleasant attempt at a fusion of French and Japanese, but that, based on the Square Meal review, I believed they had given up this abomination. On opening my menu, I found a weird and unexciting attempt at a fusion of French and Japanese! The trouble was that I, and most of the family, found it difficult, on the basis of the menu, to find anything that we particularly wanted to eat. In the end, for the mains, 3 of us, myself included, settled for the least oriental, beef fillet with pepper sauce and dauphinoise potatoes (£5 supplement). Two others had fish and one daughter had the pork.
When we arrived, there was a large party of around 15 plus possibly 3 tables of 2. During the evening, the number of couples never exceeded 4, although a couple of tables were used twice. There seemed to be 4 front of house staff plus the receptionist.
We ordered still, sparkling and tap water and all of these turned up quickly. Shortly after, I ordered a bottle of Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand), which I remembered fondly from Origin (RIP), although they sold it for some £10 less than the £36 charged here. That, too, came quickly and was as good as, but no better than, I remembered it. Three of us had some and the bottle was placed in a chiller with bottles from 2 other tables, a practice I am never totally at ease with.
Whilst waiting, a nearby table had their starters delivered, and we were astounded at how large they were – I have had smaller mains! Within a reasonable time, our starters also arrived, likewise enormous. I had a salad of duck confit with watermelon and cashews. This arrived, beautifully presented in a banana leaf. There were a few cubes of melon, some cashews and some token greenery, but the bulk was duck flesh (plus a fair bit of soft and fatty skin, which I left). The meat must have represented a significant proportion of a whole duck. This was very well cooked and tasted, as it should, of duck, except for an unfortunate (for me) hint of sweetness. Others also commented that their meals had an unexpected sweetness – perhaps the Oriental influence, but more Chinese than Japanese. I felt that the melon and nuts added nothing to the dish, although in themselves they were fine.
A couple of the others had the goats cheese starter. This was three very substantial chunks, deep fried. All disappeared, although I was told that one of these would have been enough.
Meanwhile, my wine glass had been languishing empty for some time before my wife called a waitress to refill it. The two others who were drinking had not quite finished their glasses and I had the impression that, after the glasses had been replenished, the bottle had not been finished. Subsequently, when my glass again had stayed empty for far longer than was decent, we investigated the chiller and found our bottle not there, leaving a query in my mind whether another table had enjoyed the remnants of our bottle. Of course, I could have been mistaken that there had been some left, but, if I return, I will keep a closer eye on the wine. But why should I have to?
Shortly after ordering the white, I also ordered a red – as it happened, Spy Valley Pinot Noir. So, once we had discovered the absence of white, we called for the red. A waiter then came up and told me he could not find it (note, as I did at the time, that he did not say they were out of it) and asked me to choose an alternative.. Until I told him to come back in a few minutes, he then hung around as though expecting me to know instantly what I wanted, a difficult job, given that the wine list is quite substantial. I felt that the mark ups were a little high, especially for red Burgundy, which did not make the task any easier. However, I eventually chose a red Burgundy and called the waiter back.
Some 20 or so minutes later, a waitress returned , with the wine list, to say that, despite her having searched for 15 minutes, this wine, too, had vanished and to explain that the sommelier had rearranged the wine cellar that day but was not on duty. He had been phoned, but they had been unable to get hold of him. Some 20 or so minutes later, the waiter turned up, bringing, to everyone’s surprise, a bottle. Even more surprising, it was the correct one, a red Sancerre 2004 at £38. Quite honestly, words fail me – were I the owner, one or two jobs would be in severe jeopardy today. We asked for the bottle to remain on the table. The wine was OK.
Shortly thereafter, the mains arrived. Mine was a reasonable sized piece of beef, by no means small, but not too large, accompanied by three substantial blocks of potato masquerading as pommes dauphinoise, plus a little pot of sauce. Son-in-law and I, who both had the meat medium rare, found it rather dry without the sauce, but the daughter who ordered it rare was much more fortunate. The potato had been sliced thinly, formed into blocks and then, I guess, roasted. There was no sign whatsoever of cream or cheese, or, indeed, anything other than potato. As potato, it was decent, with some nice crispy bits, but dauphinoise it most emphatically was not. The sauce, unfortunately necessary to make the meat palatable, was extremely peppery – too much so for my taste, leaving a tingle in the mouth and interfering with my enjoyment of the wine.
My other daughter had pork. This came as small lumps in a large bowl on a plate also bearing mashed potato. She said the mash was the size and shape of a small baguette, perhaps an exaggeration – I thought it more a submarine roll. She also thought it tasted funny, but, having just come out of hospital, her taste is suspect – I tried it and it was fine. However, like the fake dauphinoise, it was a healthy version of the dish, lacking anything except potato. My daughter enjoyed the pork, except it was too sweet.
My wife had ordered a fish. What turned up was pieces of fish and vegetables in a light, Japanese-style batter, all cleverly held within a container fashioned from what appeared to be the skin and bones of a fish. The batter was unexpected and unwanted and my wife left most of the dish.
Finally, my daughter’s boyfriend had, I believe, fish, but he, as is his wont, said nothing. However, he not only finished his main, he also made substantial inroads into my wife’s, so I assume that he was happy.
Several of us ordered a side of fine beans. These were as they should be, but, in contrast to everything else, the portions were distinctly mean.
We were then offered dessert. There were half a dozen to choose from, and none appealed to me or boyfriend. However, the remaining 4 of us managed to order 5 desserts between them. A sticky toffee pudding was, my daughter theorised, bought frozen and then microwaved with such enthusiasm that the sponge had turned partly rubbery, partly crispy, wholly inedible. A Baileys cheesecake (2 ordered, approximately 1 finished) seemed like a vanilla cheesecake on which a little Baileys had been poured. An apple & blackberry crumble seemed to go down well. A pistachio crème brulee was described by son-in-law as having the consistency of an avocado but absolutely no taste. No cheese was offered and, on enquiring, we were told that they no longer serve cheese.
The bill, including wines and 12.5% service, came to £313 for the 6 of us. I believe that the menu was priced for Sunday-Thursday (£20 for 2 courses, £25 for 3, with just the one supplement for the beef), and suspect that the Friday and Saturday prices would be higher. So reasonable food prices, despite the somewhat high wine prices. The two women serving were sweet and helpful, although no-one seemed especially attentive. The two men serving did what was needed, no more.
This could be such a great venue, in a well-heeled area a bit light on really good restaurants, but, despite several make-overs, I still feel it has not quite got it right. A shame.