THE TIMES – April 1, 2006
Ginny Dougary

“One associates the slogan ‘Relaxed Fine Dining’ with middle-aged men in Pringle golf sweaters”
 
 
Congratulations are in order. I’ve been ban­ned from a restaurant. This has been achieved without becoming paralytic and throwing up over a table, dancing on top of or passing out underneath one. I have not asked for my meat to be prepared well done or ordered HP Sauce to be served with my foie gras. I have not been caught Beckering in a broom cupboard. 
 
To put this in some perspective, it took a ledge like A.A. Gill five years of full-time restaurant reviewing and umpteen awards to reach this point when Gordon Ramsay fam­ously threw him (accompanied by Joan Coll­ins) out of the chef’s eponymous restaur­ant in 1998. That was in retaliation for a review in which Gill had described the chef as a “failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old”, his Aubergine restaurant as “utterly forgettable” and the menu as “utterly tasteless”.

And what withering prose has led to my recent banishment? “Due South has fantastic views, understated decor, and the food is local, organic, free-range, meticulously sourced and – oh yes – delicious.” A devastating put-down that continues to be used as a form of self- flagellation on Due South’s website. But there was much more offensive material where that came from – I said that it was likely to become my favourite local restaurant in Brighton (and in a later column that it did); that I had taken many guests there, from elderly matriarchs to adolescent boys and that they had all loved it.

What seems to have aggravated the owner, an imposing man in a leather jacket who goes by the name of Rob, was a small complaint that the booking set-up was a bit shambolic (answer-machine directing you to book by internet which, in my case, was not responded to anyway) and the fact that I never seemed to be able to get a table even when the place was half-full. This was also the case on the day when I was instructed (accompanied by much James-Bond-villain eye-twitching) never to darken the door of the owner’s establishment again. And they say chefs are temperamental.

So it was off for a restorative break in the Cotswolds to see whether I could be thrown out of any more restaurants. First stop was the Lygon Arms in Broadway, where I had intended to rise to the occasion and go for the five-course, or even the seven-course, gourmande, sorry, gastronomic menu. The most memorably happy meal I’ve had was at Tetsuya’s in Sydney which was a mad-sounding 12 courses; it was a cool setting, with two of my best friends, and tiny portions of expensive ingredients adorning intense-tasting reductions of this and that, which kept on surprising your tongue in the most delightful, rather sexy way.

Tetsuya’s would have been a hard act for any restaurant to follow, but the Lygon Arms menu, read in the comfort of my room, did not turn me on: sweet potato and red pepper velouté with creamed goat’s cheese, tian of crab with crayfish dressing, venison or beef, followed by two puds, passionfruit mousse, hot-chocolate fondant… just seemed a bit blah. (Possibly more suited to a senior citizen’s tooth-challenged palate.) Then I discovered that the chef had departed suddenly that week, and the previous maestro had been lost four months previously (what was it Oscar Wilde said about carelessness?), and it didn’t really seem fair to review the kitchen anyway.

I’ve been coming to this hotel since I was a schoolgirl boarder in nearby Chelten­ham, and so it is freighted with memories. It’s always been an odd mixture of gemütlich and kitsch, weighed down with its own illustrious past – opening its doors to both King Charles I, who met his supporters in a room that retains its original 17th-century panelling, and Oliver Cromwell, although not, presumably, at the same time (hidden spiral staircases notwithstanding), since that might have had rather different historical consequences.

My most recent stay there was a few years ago, when it was owned by the Savoy Group. They fixed a fantastic picnic to go to an open-air concert at Sudeley Castle but the room was ghastly, almost sub-Fawlty Towers, with depressing decor, damp stains, the lot. I’d been offered a free night as compensation, and it’s to the new owner’s credit – Paramount Hotels – that they still honoured it. I must say that the designer, Diana Sieff, who was hired by the Furlong family (post-Savoy, pre-Paramount) did an amazing update keeping all the lovely old paintings and antiques and wood, but going for bold, slightly bonkers textiles to cover the chairs.

Feeling a bit bird cold-ish, I wondered about the legitimacy of reviewing room service, but struggled to the hotel’s brasserie, the naffly-named Goblets, and didn’t really enjoy the fish soup (too insipid) or the goat’s cheese salad (too tart), but loved my friend’s haddock, mash and poached egg, which was perfect nursery-comforting flu-food.

Our destination restaurant the follow­ing day was Allium – winner of various accolades last year (Good Food Guide, Les Rout­iers, and so on) – in Fairford. I liked everything about it, apart from its slogan “Relaxed Fine Dining” which, like “smart-casual”… aaarrghh, one associates with the sort of middle-aged English men in Pringle golf sweaters who tend to stay in groups at the Lygon Arms. (Since the Americans gave up travelling.)

Once inside the Grade II-listed building, the first impression is of an extravagance of creamy space. There’s a huge open fire, charcoal-grey sinking leather chairs, a soundtrack of jazzy female vocalists, good olives. Into the restaurant itself, which is even more spacious; the owners (Erica Graham, front-of-house, and her chef/husband Nick Bartimote, both of whom seemed reassuringly well-balanced) having taken the decision to reduce the number of covers from 60 down to 34.

In the bar, we had been presented with an amuse-gueule of mini-cornets stuffed with a local goat’s cheese spiked with sweet peppers – tasty but more irritating really than amusing, as it was impossible to avoid sprinkling yourself with cornet unless you stuffed it all in your mouth at once. Another pre-starter was served in the dining room – a small bowl of rabbit broth with boudin of loin: gamey, sweet and savoury. This hit the spot – like a classy version of buttered toast and Marmite – and made me want to order a hot-water bottle and curl up in front of a fire.

Our starters arrived, which woke us up with what turned out to be something of a bittersweet leitmotif of the menu: fillet of John Dory with crab and citrus salad and ballotine of salmon with cucumber and seaweed. My friend was in raptures about the former: “So fresh, alive… like eating spring and sunshine”; I loved my dollop of caviar, the cucumber was Japanesey and the ballotine came with horseradish mayo and an unadvertised large poached oyster (perfectly executed, but didn’t do it for me because of my mucusey state… enough said).

I had a taste of two other starters – the veal sweetbreads with braised lentils and a Sauternes froth, looking disconcertingly like dirty foam on a beach, but tasting considerably nicer, and the terrine of chicken and foie gras, with a sweet shiitake mushroom accompaniment and pousse (baby spinach leaves to you and me).

The star performer of the mains was the plate of Eastleach Downs organic pork. This was an exciting dish that showed off the chef’s inventive skills, as well as the restaurant’s commitment to using local producers. Four different parts of a very tasty Babe, delicately presented and succulent. The first was a trotter on mash: my American pal (who does still travel) said: “Oh, very, very good. Almost as good as a hot dog.” I thought it was fabulous, too – but fortunately not for the same reasons. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anything to get close to Marco’s version of Pierre Koffman’s, and this did. There was a fillet that came with a splodge of apple sauce, belly with sauerkraut, and Bath Chap (cheek and head) which made one feel like Hannibal Lecter, but was worth it. My brill was brill, and I liked the linguini, sea kale and monks beard, which had more of that bitter tang thing going on – possibly some preserved lemon chopped into the pasta.

Another selection of variations on a theme for the best dessert. (A tiny niggle: I wish they wouldn’t call it an assiette – like the “fine dining” line, an unnecessary bit of twee pretension, throwing out quite the wrong message.) This time it was a blood orange being made to strut its stuff – as a dark almost aubergine ice-cream and a jelly, a fennel and orange salad (fantastic) and a pale tangerine mousse with sugared rind. I’d go back just for that. The Valhrona chocolate tart, with Guinness ice-cream and Pedro Ximénez, was as different as could be – intense, brooding, and ultimately too much for me.

Allium is an unalloyed pleasure, and I’d like to recommend it heartily, but obviously I can’t since that might get me banned – and I’m not prepared to take the risk.

 

Allium, Market Place, Fairford, Gloucestershire (01285 712200). Three-course set dinner: £32.50