A Cliffe-hanger that ends well

KING'S CLIFFE HOUSE RESTAURANT: 31 West Street, King's Cliffe, Peterborough PE8 6XB. Tel: 01780 470172 Open Wednesday to Saturday from 7pm and for either lunch or dinner by prior arrangement. Average price per head, pounds 22. Payment by cash or cheque only
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The Independent Culture
A FRIEND who lives in Northamptonshire had been raving on relentlessly about the new King's Cliffe House restaurant in a rustic village off the A1 near Peterborough. "Just the sort of place you ought to be reviewing" ... "oasis in a culinary desert" ... "Nobody's reviewed it yet - a scoop!" ... "Negligent to ignore it!" It began to seem perfectly obvious that he had either taken some filthy backhander or was sleeping with the chef.

When the visit finally took place it could not have got off to a worse start, with the dining companions all turning up preposterously late, trembling and glaring psychopathically at each other. One contingent had crashed the car - ricocheting wildly against a wall and coming to rest backwards in a ditch. Another had become so hopelessly entangled in the London rush hour that it had them taken two hours to get from Highbury to Swiss Cottage, and another so confused by signposting as to come via a Works Access Unit on the M1, a Market Harborough bottle bank, and then been unable to find the village, the restaurant, and finally, climactically, the restaurant door.

The King's Cliffe entrance actually hides in a walled garden, where drinks are taken in the summer, and herbs and all manner of fruits are grown for the kitchen. The part-17th century house is virginia creeper-clad, with many antique features all presented in a pleasant, airy style. Each new and ever-flakier arrival was ushered calmly into a bright welcoming room with a glowing fire and wickerwork armchairs. It was a tribute to the professionalism of our young and good humoured hosts that everyone sat down nicely to enjoy a relaxing drink instead of headbutting each other.

The homeliness of the house turned out to be unsurprising given that it is the home of the chef's parents, who 18 months ago sportingly allowed their son Andrew Wilshaw and his partner Emma Jessop to open a restaurant in it - something few parents these days would be prepared to turn a blind eye to. The pair of them have spent the largest portion of their professional lives cooking and serving at the celebrated Carved Angel in Dartmouth: known for its simple but cunning ways with top flight fresh ingredients, especially fish - and pounds 40-type set dinners. It was encouraging to see an a la carte menu promising similar unfussy deliciousness at a much more modest pounds 25-ish for three courses and coffee. There were all the advantages of dining in someone else's home, and none of the disadvantages: domestic tiffs, toys under the sofa cushions, feelings that you should be offering to help with the washing up or watching Match of the Day.

Our choices made, we were ushered into the dining room, a light, wooden- floored room overlooking the garden (which, obviously, would have been more of an advantage in daylight). It's not a large room, seating a maximum of 20 and apart from our table, there were just two couples dining a deux who looked up in some dismay at the arrival of a roaring party of 10. It is always a good idea, before booking a restaurant table to check that thee are no big groups in that night. It is also the sort of good idea which only occurs to you just as you sit down for a romantic evening next to a drunken works outing of 25 from the head office of an estate agent.

"Salmon Three Ways" came highly recommended: "as rillettes smoked and steamed on the premises, worked through with herb butter, as home cured gravadlax with dill sauce, and as smoked from the Isle of Skye". It was a huge hit. Still, I was more than pleased to have gone, rather controversially, for the carrot and pumpkin soup. Lightly spiced with cardamom and pumpkin seed, it was hearty, creamy and delicately tasty, piping hot almost to the point of frothy. Best of all it came with a personal tureen and serving spoon for seconds which had to be attentively guarded from marauders.

For the main course, triplicate fishiness - "nage of fish: grilled sea bass, and turbot and John Dory steamed with saffron creamy sauce" - was once again the favoured choice. It was a delicious and daintily arranged combination which met with tremendous approval. Lamb steak was declared to be better still: tender, accurately cooked and marinated to great success with soy, sesame, chilli and ginger. This is not super-posh or Michelin star terrain, but it was tasty, good, lightly presented food which pleased and surprised everyone.

The pudding range was, on paper, not the most tempting. Iced chocolate meringue sounded nice, but with ginger bombe? My two-orange terrine with raspberry sauce was good but, alas, of the jelly rather than the hoped- for creamy variety - far too light and calorie-free for a self-respecting pudding. The prune and armagnac ice-cream, on the other hand, elicited yelps of gluttonous joy. "Want to swap with some lovely jelly? Mmmmm," said the friend next to me, spotting my three-year-old godson shuddering slightly at the armagnac, and greedily engineered a swap under the guise of concern for Our Young. The taste I salvaged from the transaction was gorgeous. The local Colston Basset Stilton with apples from the vicar's garden, was excellent too.

We were intrigued by the promise of "Coffee, tissues and petit-fours" in the lounge, wondering if this was a thoughtful, if, let's face it, disgusting touch for the more romantic evening, or whether they would be serving snuff. They turned out to be not tissues but tisanes (the most thoughtful touch of all was that they let us sit sipping till half past one in the morning without for a second making us feel we had outstayed our welcome). Our mood as we departed could not have been more enhanced from that of a few hours before. This little restaurant deserves to become a bigger one, and to do very well.

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