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Dining in Hampshire and The Cotswolds

Sunday, April 25th , 2010

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Regular viewers of the Great British menu may recall Jake Watkins of JSW in the 2008 series. He runs a restaurant in the small Hampshire town of Petersfield, set in an old coaching inn. We found high quality ingredients on display at our visit, and generally good cooking technique, but a recurring theme of blandness of taste. The seasoning was consistently subtle to the point of absence, and even the home-made bread had flavours that were hard to pick out. This was an enjoyable meal, but I had hoped for a bit more given the Michelin star and his reputation.

Back in 2005 I went to a converted pub (The Farm) in an obscure side street of Fulham, where I found decent cooking at insane prices (at the time the food bill was higher than at several Michelin starred restaurants in central London). It lasted longer than I expected, but has now been reborn as My Dining Room, with a new chef who was previously heading up the stoves at the private club Mossimans in Belgravia. The décor is quite smart and the service excellent on our visit, though the place appeared woefully understaffed. The star of the meal was a duck pie which had meat that was falling apart and had great depth of flavour with excellent seasoning. Other dishes were not in this league, and many desserts were bought in, but the duck pie was really special, and suggests some (currently erratic) talent in the kitchen.

I really wanted to like Art du Fromage, a restaurant dedicated to all things cheese. The cheese itself was of good if variable quality, but the dishes that we tried had assorted issues: grim tuna in a Caeser salad, a peculiar salad dressing, tasteless apples in my dessert. This make it hard to really recommend the place. On balance I would rather just sit down with some nice cheese and some good bread than eat the dishes that we tried, and clearly a restaurant that specialises in cheese dishes ought to be able to do better than that.

Whatley Manor (pictured) is a pretty boutique hotel near Malmsbury, with a two star Michelin restaurant. It is owned by a Swiss family and has carefully landscaped gardens, with 74 staff for just 23 rooms. Some (but not all) of the vegetables used in the kitchen are grown in the grounds. Over two evenings we had two proper two star Michelin meals, especially throughout the savoury courses. Ingredients were very good indeed, with beautiful scallops, langoustines and turbot all of a very high standard. Presentation was very good, and my only quibble was a tendency to add one more garnish than strictly needed at times. Technique was hard to fault except at the dessert stage, where a couple of relatively minor issues let the otherwise highly consistent food down a little. If I was the chef, this is the area I would focus on. The wine list has some rather erratic mark-ups, so there are some relatively kind prices in places on the list, which is a nice change from top restaurants in London. By coincidence there was a film crew making a Masterchef Professionals episode (where two of the finalists cook in a top kitchen; my lips are sealed).

The Brilliant produced its usual excellent Punjabi food this week, with a new dish of tandoori crab, which was delicate and beautifully spiced, if tricky to eat in its shell (maybe they should try this with a soft shell crab). Other old favourite dishes, such as aloo tikki and methi chicken, were excellent with complex spicing and deep flavour. The rare (at least in the UK) romali roti bread is a delight, and much better than a rather ordinary paratha tried at the same meal.
Next week the blog will resume its usual Saturday slot.

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