There was no head chef in the kitchen tonight, and whether as a direct consequence or otherwise we experienced a much more erratic meal than on our previous visits. My starter of salt beef on sourdough toast with mushroom duxelle was fine, an unusual dish which had a crispy poached egg that provided a comforting match to the beef and pickles (4/10). By contrast, potted shrimps were tasteless, the pickled cucumber in particular lacking enough sourness, the lobster butter flavour lost; the layer of crème fraiche with dill hardly contributed to the dish (barely 3/10).
My John Dory was the best dish of the night, seared and served with ham hock, nicely caramelised onions, Savoy cabbage, puy lentils and mustard yoghurt. Although there was a lot going on in this dish it all came together well, the mustard lifting the dish and working well with the ham hock, the fish nicely cooked (5/10). Dover sole is a very simple dish so lives or dies by the sourcing of the fish and the accuracy of the cooking. At its best it has superb flavour, but this particular fish was oddly tasteless, and although cooked through it had a rather limp texture, as if it had been kept too long before serving (2/10).
Desserts were on more solid ground. Apple tart had reasonable pastry and the apple had the right degree of sharpness, though the caramel ice cream lacked flavour (4/10). Crème brulee was also fine, the topping nicely crisp, the vanilla flavour coming through well, the texture not too runny (4/10).
The bill came to £108 a head, albeit with some quite good wine. If you drank a modest wine then the bill would come to around £80 a head all in. Service tonight was fine, a little old-fashioned but in a perfectly nice way, and they topped up our wine very capably. The problem was that there were two sides to the kitchen on display, one considerably more capable than the other, and at this price point such inconsistency is not on. I am not sure whether the chef being absent made a big difference, but it cannot have helped. I have reduced the score by a point, but even that is a little kind based on the average cooking level tonight.