A truly memorable mousse

THE DROVEWAY 30a Southgate, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 1DR. Tel: 01243 528832. Open Tues-Sat: lunch 12.30-2; dinner, 7-10 and for after-theatre bookings. Express lunch, pounds 10. Average a la carte meal, pounds 23. All credit cards except Diners
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ANYONE familiar with Chichester in recent years will remember Thompson's near the railway station, an elegant first-floor room full of pink tablecloths and silver wine-coolers up a rather unprepossessing flight of narrow stairs above a hardware shop. It was, in the days when I was fortunate enough to be treading the boards of the Festival Theatre, always packed to overflowing after the show with affluent country folk on the run from culture, and specialised, as far as I can remember, in fish.

The restaurant is still there, roughly as it always was, but it is now called The Droveway. Jonas Tester, the chef who bought it in 1990, apparently spent two years trying to think of a name that would be "suitably trendy" and eventually decided to call it after his old family home in Hayward's Heath, now demolished.

He has underlined the connection by decorating one wall of the big room with a fine collection of prints and drawings from the old house, adding a corner full of big, heavily upholstered green armchairs, and by bringing in bookcases containing various family odds and ends, old copies of Wisden and romantic novels from the turn of the present century. This obviously makes the room slightly less elegant and a little more cluttered and cranky.

It is, in any case, a remarkable room, vast in size considering its position overlooking a narrow street, and with one end partitioned off to accommodate the kitchen. It has an obscure history, but is known at some stage to have been used as a Quaker meeting hall, and later as a storeroom by a wholesale grocer. Now it has a pink ceiling, slightly less pink walls, and, were it not for the red brick of the house opposite, could be the corner of a country house that has seen better days.

Sitting there at lunchtime under the ceiling fans on one of the hottest days of the year with my exotic stepmother - she has cousins in France, Canada and South America and even claims some remote connection with Harold Pinter - I felt the sense of unease I always feel in an empty restaurant. Are restaurant critics the only people left who can afford to eat out? Then an artistic-looking man and his wife came in and sat at another table, our waitress appeared and assured me that they were fully booked that evening, and I felt better. I ordered my stepmother her gin and tonic and we settled down to look at the menu.

I should explain before I get on to the food that the waitress was blonde and very pretty, and had a barely audible husky Hampshire voice. She said she had laryn-gitis and it was a good thing we hadn't come the day before because she hadn't had any voice at all, but it added greatly to the charm of the restaurant.

The Droveway offers something called an Express Lunch Menu at pounds 10, useful for those going to a matinee at the theatre, and my exotic stepmother being cautious with the bawbees said she would have that. It consisted of only two courses, with a choice of main course of millefeuille of salmon with tarragon, rib eye of pork, Cajun chicken or lamb cutlets. She chose the Cajun chicken.

This left me as a conscientious critic virtually obliged to have three courses from the more expensive end of the menu. I am very glad I did, starting with the coquilles St Jacques "Buerhiesel" - "a wonderful dish from the three Michelin-starred Strasbourg restaurant of raw scallops dressed on a bed of creamed celeriac served with a truffle vinaig-rette," the menu explained. I also asked for a rather expensive but excellent bottle of Chablis at pounds 16.50 - the wine list on the whole is very reasonable - and settled down to talk about the exotic and far-flung relations, one of whom, now dead, owned a yacht and attended fashionable race-meetings with an orchid in his buttonhole.

The waitress then appeared with the food. My stepmother's Cajun chicken seemed to me very good value, pieces of fried spicy chicken in a green salad, and the Buerhiesel was as memorable as anything I have eaten in your service: thick slithers of fleshly fresh scallops on a really delicious celeriac mousse in a lovely subtle sauce.

I then slipped up. Fascinated by the waitress's husky voice, I asked her to read out the vegetarian menu, which was not printed - the sea bass, lamb, stuffed chicken breast, steak au poivre and kidneys all seemed rather heavy for a hot day - and ordered a ragout of mushrooms in puff pastry. My mistake was in not asking the price. Even though the printed dishes cost anything up to pounds 17.50, I thought pounds 10 for what amounted to a vol-au- vent with vegetables was a bit steep.

My stepmother had lingered over her Cajun chicken while I caught up, and we swam level through the pudding, she having strawberry meringue from the Express Menu and I, on the husky waitress's advice, the home- made caramel and banana ice-cream - she said she had made it herself - with a warm compote of banana, served with butterscotch sauce. I asked her whether she had done the spun sugar too, and she rasped, "No. Chef. Mine's better!"

My stepmother polished off her strawberry meringue and some of my ice- cream, approving both, and was delighted when the artistic-looking man at the other table came over and invited us to hear his choir sing Choral Evensong in the cathedral, which after a matinee at the theatre we did, and had a very happy day.

We finished lunch with a pot of coffee each, my stepmother characteristically asking for the Yemeni Heights of Araby Ismaili, while I had the Special Cuban. Knocking off the cigar I ordered to convince my stepmother I could keep pace with orchid-studded yacht-owners, lunch for two with drinks came to pounds 57.35 without the tip.