JOHN CAMPBELL RESTAURANT The Rolls proceeded up the drive, past a gorgeous field of wild flowers in a stunning variety of colour. A nice change from the usual manicured grounds. As we pulled up at the main entrance at 6.30 pm (we turned up half an hour early to enjoy a relaxed drink in the bar) the staff were all caught in headlights, running around like headless chickens. Two of these chaps in the unusual Coworth hotel uniform (ill fitting brown tweed…sort of Dick Van Dykish trying to look like an English country gentleman and failing miserably) then approached the Rolls, one either side of the front doors without touching the handles, clearly wondering what to do next. I opened the window…being five minutes from my home I had decided to drive.
“Are you checking in” asked the staff member through the open window? “No, we have a table at your John Campbell restaurant.” At which they both walked off without another word. A “Good evening and welcome to Coworth Park” would not have been amiss. We all sat there for a minute. I was peering around for a suitable parking spot as I didn’t like the look of the packed car park (obvious wedding guest vehicles all packed closely together…my concern being how sober the occupants would be after the reception). Back came the main inquisitor. “Do you have a name?” he enquired?
Of course I have a name. We were again abandoned. Off he went, leaving us sitting in the Phantom, in the middle of the driveway by the main entrance. Then a lady in weird beige sort of a uniform, appeared with a puzzled expression and approached the Phantom.
“Are you sure you have a reservation sir?” I reconfirmed my name and my 7pm table reservation for 4. Off she went to check again…leaving us still sitting in the Rolls…obviously they were not going to invite riff-raff like us to step into their nice new, shiny hotel without a full investigation. The signs were not looking good. By this point my wife was in sarcasm overdrive and said perhaps we should all go to the Ascot Oriental (a decent enough Chinese restaurant moments away, where we occasionally see TV star Bruce Forsyth, who enjoys chatting to my wife about fish). Then suddenly, a breakthrough. The first chap then finally offered to park the car. He looked about 20. “Do you know how to drive this car?” I asked? “Oh yes…I’ve driven Bentleys before” he assured me. “So where is the hand-brake?” I enquired, stepping out. He looked, cluelessly, failing to find it. There is in fact a small button which electrically operates the parking brake on a Rolls Phantom. At that I promised to give him a go after he had spent a few weeks practising on a few others. I selected a parking spot (there is a single space directly opposite the main entrance, away from the car park) and in we went, to enjoy a drink in the cocktail bar.
My wife and I asked the waitress for Bellini’s. “Polinees?” she asked. I explained. “Releenies” she asked? However once the message got through the barman was up to the challenge. It took 20 minutes for the bar to source white peaches, puree the fruit and then pour through a sieve. The result was excellent, total perfection and we liked the extra-long champagne glasses. Our guests enjoyed their Martinis and we were entertained by the digitally enhanced pop art, on the wall, of horses with human aspects and two “My Little Ponies” proudly displayed in perspex boxes. My wife and and I do like a nice bit of kitch.
A wedding reception was in full swing on the lower ground floor with music highly audible in both the restaurant bar and the hotel reception…it was like Saturday night in a Northern UK city, complete with the strains, a while later, of a bunch of drunken women shrieking to “New York, New York.” A group of them were outside the main entrance more often than not, smoking. This looks appalling. Can you imagine this at The Dorchester in Park Lane, part of this hotel group? Running the gauntlet of drunken wedding guests en route to the same loos which served restaurant guests was not calming.
The restaurant manager presented the menus. We chose the tasting menu, a good idea on a first visit to a Michelin starred establishment that we expect to visit often…given it is only a few minutes drive from home.
My wife and our guests were first to be seated in the room, which felt stark and harsh (due to the excessively bright lighting). I approved of our table…things were looking up. At least we were about to eat.
All John Campbell needs to do is dim the lights by 50% to achieve a warm atmosphere…and turn off the air conditioning. One of our guests was overheard mentioning she was cold. “We have Pashmina’s” said a helpful waiter who produced one moments later. The piped muzak was loud, horrible trendy jazz…too trendy for its’ own good. The volume kept changing between loud and too loud. Eventually they turned it off. I guess it’s only for “atmosphere” before the room fills. Later in the evening a pianist appeared in the lounge area but we could only hear his efforts when we were en route to the loo and anyhow the wedding noise clashed horribly with the sound of the piano.
Mr John Campbell, executive chef, then made an appearance but only visited two of the tables…not ours. Nobody else could have been worth talking to.
First course as we recall (we never take notes and I don’t own a dictaphone) was described as a “parsnip with oxtail soup.” I was ready for some hearty soup on a cold autumn evening. Some froth, in the most miniscule glass arrived…without any exaggeration…two teaspoonfuls and it was all over. Tres amusee and nothing to speak of. I wasn’t sure if this was a freebie or the first course as listed on the tasting menu. No further soup appeared so that was it. Unbelievable.
Next up was Pilchard…a teeny-weeny portion with some colourful smeers. Perhaps there is world shortage of Pilchard?…they only gave us the “P” and it was all over in two polite bites…I’m serious! In fact this dish would not have looked out of place all on one fork.
Then came dried tuna with beetroot, potato and some more smears…green olive oil jelly and watercress puree. Delicious but still one of the tiniest portions I had ever encountered in 30 years of Michelin dining. I started to panic as it was begining to look as if we would end up going home hungry. And so we all asked for the same course again. This was no problem and eventually it turned up…and of course Coworth charged for it. (My wife recommends John Campbell’s tasting menu for every day as part of a sure-fire diet). This double helping of tuna (it was in fact more like a carpaccio but it was dried) was an unusual and new taste experience and was very good indeed.
Pigeon followed, probably one pigeon breast between the four of us. A sauce was poured over the tiny sample. This course was also lovely though once again, seriously miniscule.
At this point I’ll mention that a few weeks later, we ordered the tasting menu at the nearby Waterside Inn, which is a sensational 3 Michelin star temple of fabulous food…and we were served such generous portions that I struggled to eat the final course…a sensational souffle.
Our guests then had a crab’s leg (a delicate portion which they enjoyed) while we were given turbot. My portion was extremely small but still twice as much as my wife received. She wasn’t happy at this blatant favouritism. This turbot was the worst course as the fish was dry.
Along came the venison which went down well…it was served with blackberries and a no-doubt very special jus. As this was the last course before pudding and we were all so hungry, we also ordered this one again and so of course Coworth charged us double again. IF they had served more than a tiny portion they would not have needed to double charge us. Does the chef have a problem with his eyesight?
“Tuh” said my wife with obvious disappointment. The pre-pudding was a tiny bit of cream “glop” and a bit of pink “glop” delicately arranged and it was all over with one bite, apart from my wife’s miniscule portion which must have been the body-builder’s version. She received the extra protein boost of a black human hair, appearing to have been carefully arranged on the side of the plate and so quietly mentioned it to a waiter. As my wife pointed to the hair, the waiter bent over and peered at it, then looked at her, scratched his nose, looked again at the said hair and when my wife smiled and moved back from the bowl, the waiter, by now joined by a waitress AND a manager, finally realised that the idea was to remove and replace this dish. Pudding was nasty, disappointing, dreadful. It was beer and chocolate, an ice-creamy/mousse-ish aberration and a foul assault on the taste buds. If my wife had ever wanted to try the taste of deep fried mars bar she would have done it by now and believes that John Campbell may have come close to it last night.
Coffee and petite fours arrived with the waiter, resplendent in his white gloves, explaining each of the many different treats. Half way through what was proving a lengthy discourse (at the point he was describing a chocolate infusion with lapsong suchong tea), we were losing the losing the will to live and asked for one of each. They were all good apart from the lapsong infusion.
The nasty jazz music came back on once we were the final occupiers of a table. Were they hinting we should leave? It took then half an hour to produce our bill…problems with their system which refused to co-operate, they explained. However John Campbell Restaurant at Cowarth Park has the potential to be lovely.