A stately Sunday with mother

Eating Out at CLIVEDEN: Taplow, near Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 0JF. Tel: 01628 668561. Open every day, lunch, 12.30-2pm; dinner, 7-10pm. Set lunch pounds 26, dinner pounds 37. Average two-course a la carte meal, pounds 40. All major credit cards accepted.
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CLIVEDEN, as my Mum's friend Jenny remarked when she heard we were going, used to be "the social place for all the politicians and wotnot". A beautiful 17th-century stately home on the banks of the Thames, less than an hour from London, it was owned by the Astor family for the first half of the century, playing host in a glittering, golden-era sort of way to the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Lawrence of Arabia. It was also where, at a houseparty in the Sixties, Profumo first met Christine Keeler, swimming in the Cliveden pool without her swimsuit on. Now, however, it is a posh hotel, where absolutely anyone can go for their Sunday lunch as long as they don't mind paying about pounds 40 for it.

One of the nicest things about Cliveden now is the growing sense of self- importance it gives you the closer you get to it. You sweep past the National Trust car park for people just walking in the park, on past another car park for people just looking round the gardens, and finally, having parked right outside the bloody house itself, darlings, you sweep past the people queuing for the guided tour, announcing in a loud voice: "We've booked a table for lunch." The only thing we were a little bit sad about was that we didn't have a chauffeur to leave reading the News of the World in the car.

We were led through an impressive wood- panelled hall containing suits of armour and tapestries to the Terrace Dining Room, full of flowers and chandeliers and overlooking the landscaped lawns that lead down to the Thames. With hindsight, we would have booked a table by the window where the visitors looking round the gardens could have admired us - but instead we were against the bookshelves, which turned out to be artificial frontages. I felt this was a poor do, but Mum wouldn't hear a word against the place. "You see, you don't know. They might have put a room on the other side, and there wasn't enough space for real books," she said, rather tailing off when she remembered that the room on the other side was in fact the enormous entrance hall with the suits of armour.

The clientele seemed from every walk of life. The table next to us, for example, contained an extended family who were discussing who was going to ride back in the aeroplane and who in the car. "What I don't like to see," whispered Mum, glancing over at them, "is older women with all their hair blonded and a really strong tan on." By the time our starters arrived she was hissing: "They look as though they're publicans who've been fortunate with their money. I bet you they've just been away on a cruise and turned all their taxable cash into gold jewellery."

Cliveden, in a helpful, civilised way, will take Sunday lunch bookings for as late as 3.30, and even though we arrived at the end of the sitting there was no sense of rush or tailing off. In fact, the service was absolutely outstanding. The room was teeming with the most charming young Frenchmen you can imagine carrying enormous trays on their shoulders, who had the winning combination of being consummately professional and very friendly.

The table was beautifully laid, with everything silver and sparkling. My creamed cauliflower and saffron soup, served under a silver dome, was excellent - not too thick and not too thin, with the taste of proper meaty stock involved, lumps of real cauliflower and pesto croutons. Mum was initially charmed by her brandade of cod and sauce ceviche arranged in three scoops, "like white chocolate mice"; but having eaten it, declared: "Well that was very nice but I would not have served it." The "whatever- it-was" was "too tasteless. It was really just fish and mashed potato. It was bland. And the sauce was bland."

Escalope of salmon with a bone marrow and herb crust, and olives, aubergine and olive oil dressing was more of a success. "It's only just cooked but it's lovely. The crust is very good and the sauce is very good." She felt, though, that the vegetables would have been better served plain than in a creamy buttery dressing. "Mind you, that might be just me. I'm not a very buttery person."

So often Sunday roasts served sliced in gravy are a disappointment. But my roast beef was so tender, pink and melting it could almost have been a slice of raspberry mousse. The modestly titled "roast gravy" was in fact a delicate jus. The horseradish sauce was creamy, the green beans crisp, the carrot puree tangy and the roast potatoes were literally the most delicious I have ever eaten. What a pity, then, about the Yorkshire pudding. "Well, it's tough," said Mum, herself a Yorkshirewoman, with indignation. "There's nothing in the middle. That's not the correct consistency for Yorkshire pudding at all. I suppose if people didn't know what Yorkshire pudding was supposed to be they might think it was all right, but really..."

Pear sorbet to follow was shiveringly delicious, sitting smugly on a circle of crisp meringue. The blackcurrant delice, a mousse-style cake, was all right, but the blackcurrant seemed a bit overpowering for the dainty cake. "I'm not much of a sorbet fan," said Mum. "I always think it's just frozen juice - which it is of course." She went instead for profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce. "The sauce is very nice, the ice cream's nice..." But, oh dear, the profiteroles. "Well, they're too heavy and dry. They should be light and crispy, should profiteroles. If I'd made these I'd consider them a failure. I'd have thrown them away and opened a tin of pears."

Coffee, served among the squashy velvet sofas of the wood-panelled hall, was a generous cafetiere, with fresh cream truffles. The whole thing - with a glass of wine and a glass of orange juice and pounds 2.50 each compulsory donation to the National Trust, which now owns Cliveden - came to pounds 85.50. Service, the menu stated, was neither included nor expected, but we had been so charmed we added it anyway.