A first and lasting impression
THE HOLE IN THE WALL; 16 George Street, Bath BA21 2EH. Tel: 01225 425242. Open for Sunday lunch, noon-2pm and Mon-Sat for dinner, 6-10.30pm. Sunday lunch menu, pounds 14.50. Average price for dinner, pounds 20 per head. Major credit cards except Diners accepted
To start, I had smoked salmon and brown bread, which made such an impression on me that for the next five years at least, whenever anyone asked me what my favourite food was, I said "smokedsalmonanbrownbread" without hesitation. Back then, the salmon would certainly have been wild, and properly smoked over smouldering oak chips while hanging horizontally in a traditional brick kiln. The mass-farming of salmon and the computerised stainless steel smoking kiln mean today's product is rather less of a treat.
I chose roast turkey for my main course, and it arrived on a trolley under a silver dome big enough to build a den in. I remember being told I could have "as much as I liked", a concept which registers deeply in the mind of a six year old, and I also remember savouring the salty crispness of the well-browned skin, which remains my favourite bit of any roast bird.
Pudding was strawberries: a huge glass bowl of them came with another exhortation to indulge without limit. So when I couldn't eat any more, I put the biggest one I could find in the middle of my heavy linen napkin and squashed it on the wooden table with my fist. As the crimson juices spread slowly up the napkin, a litmus of my lost innocence, I was about as drunk on the whole restaurant experience as the grown-ups were on Pimms and chianti.
Twenty six years on, the Good Food Guide entry for the Hole in the Wall still states "children welcome". So when my three-year-old goddaughter Chloe came to stay for the Easter weekend (with younger brother Gus and parents in tow), it seemed the perfect venue for her initiation into the alluring world of formal dining out. (I see my godparental responsibilities as largely gastronomic: less, "Do you renounce evil?", more, "Do you renounce E-numbers?")
The eponymous entrance to the restaurant is at ground level heading downwards, as if in to the bowels of the earth. Yet somehow you arrive at the bottom of the stairs not in a lightless dungeon, but in the first of two spacious and well-windowed dining-rooms - a nice example of a Regency architect making the best of Bath's absurdly hilly topography.
Beyond a slight sensation of dark wood panelling, which may have been quite fanciful, I had no recollection of the 1971 interior - so the clearly recent refurbishment of not-quite-white walls, better-than-standard-issue paintings, and bright blue-green upholstered bench seats came as no great surprise. It was a pleasant enough setting in which to approach the three- choices-at-each-course Sunday lunch set menu.
I was steering Chloe in the direction of pan-fried salmon with Chardonnay, samphire and chive sauce, but her mother was in consultation with the waiter about juvenile alternatives. The tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, which he suggested, at least had the virtue of being real food. When it arrived Gus and Chloe assessed the texture of the home-made pasta with enviable physicality: first with fingers, then with their faces, and finally with their mouths. It seemed to meet with approval at all levels.
The rest of us approached our starters with tedious adult inhibitions, but our restrained "mmmms" and "hahs" were genuine enough. The rice in my risotto of various Cornish fish was perfectly cooked - which is to say creamy, but still just chalky in the middle - and well-flavoured by a good white fish stock, plenty of chopped dill, and a hefty slosh of Pernod to make sure I got the point about the dill. The fish was presented separately around the edge of the plate - a tiny but nicely cooked portion of sea bass, half a dozen sweet baby clams and a couple of coralless scallops, fresh and admirably unoverdone. A more unusual addition was the meat of three large razor clams.
Meanwhile Chloe's dad raved about his confit of duck leg served with kumquat marmalade. I managed to get a nice little ducky scratching from the sharp end of the leg and half a deliciously jammy kumquat off him, and wished I'd had more. Mum had carrot and orange soup, which was the best example I have so far tasted of a dish I have never much liked.
Main courses lacked the sparkle of the starters, but were offered with solid Sunday lunch competence. The saddle of lamb was lovely spring meat, but could have been a mite pinker, and the stuffing, of apricots and almonds, was disproportionately generous. But the rosemary jus it came with was pleasantly infused with the advertised herb. Roast pheasant was better than it might have been, given the bird is two months out of season: if it had been frozen, you couldn't tell. The accompanying braised red cabbage, so often either over- vinegared or feebly insipid, had just the right balance of sweet and sour.
The pudding course looked in danger of letting us down. The choice of treacle tart or bread and butter pudding seemed too wintery for a seriously sunny, clocks-forward Sunday. But our waiter came up with another crowd pleaser: a huge plate of home-made sorbets, ice-creams and almond biscuits, and a pile of spoons (not that Chloe and Gus had any use for these). All of the ices - coconut, pear, vanilla and chocolate - were good, and the strawberry was the best I have had outside Italy.
Chloe is only three, and I doubt the Hole in the Wall left as deep an impression on her in 1997 as it did on me in 1971. But she paid the meal the same compliment I had all those years ago by falling asleep with her head on her mother's knee, all the way home. Perhaps she was dreaming of future feasts.
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