Bridging the gap

A Cambridgeshire pub that thinks it's a restaurant
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Seen from the front, the Pheasant Inn is an idyllic, thatched pub in a quiet Cambridgeshire village. Drive into the car park, walk towards the entrance, and you get a mild shock. Bolted on to the back of the pub are two undistinguished, suburban brick semis housing the kitchen and dining room. It is like a Wild West film set, where the old saloon front is shored up by planks of wood that the camera isn't supposed to see.

The Pheasant is part of the Huntsbridge group, which also owns the Three Horseshoes in Madingley (just outside Cambridge), among others. Their appeal is that they feel like pubs, but serve the kind of food you might expect to find in a restaurant. This gap-bridging has been a laudable Nineties goal, in the wake of the spectacular failure of big breweries to provide even half-decent food. Relatively few pubs serve good food and even fewer chains can manage it; I wondered whether perhaps the size of this one, with only four outlets, might work in its favour.

The Pheasant has a bookable no-smoking dining room, but the same free- ranging menu is available at any table anywhere in the building. There is no need to eat three courses if all you want is a snack, and owner John Hoskins has produced a wonderful wine list with extremely reasonable prices.

The food is modern, fairly British but with strong Mediterranean leanings. Wild boar sausages and roast wood pigeon indulge red-blooded tastes, while fish and vegetable dishes widen the appeal.

We ordered food, wine and water all at once, and the wine arrived first. The bottle of Alsace riesling seemed to have some gunge in it that looked, in the half-light, more sinister than mere tartrate crystals, so it was taken away for closer inspection and pronounced to be a "bad bottle". Second choice, an Austrian pinot gris from Heinrich, was cheaper, and excellent.

A saffron risotto with creamed leeks arrived within minutes of ordering, never a good sign. In an ideal world, risotto is made by standing over it for 30 minutes; as a compromise it can be made in two stages, but even so it needs watching if the rice is not to overcook. This risotto did not appear to have been made with the best rice for the job, was rather overcooked, and lacked seasoning, though when the creamed leeks and Parmesan were stirred in, it improved quite a lot.

Similar care should be taken with a twice-baked souffle. This one, of goats' cheese, was quite dry but tasted very good - neither too mild nor too strong - and came with a pile of garlicky dressed green leaves, and some coarse blobs of apple and walnut bound together with something appropriately moist.

By now I was beginning to wonder whether Martin Lee, the chef, was in charge of the cooking, or whether it was in charge of him. It seemed that the anticipated press of numbers dictated a lot of advance preparation, and that this was getting in the way of his real intentions.

We tried a tomato and black olive tart to see what the pastry was like. It was a circle of puff with an appetising golden rim, but was not cooked through. Hence it was a little doughy, and had also absorbed a lot of olive oil, or tried to. Perhaps this is not the best time of year to expect wonderful tomatoes; this plum variety lacked essential flavour and balancing acidity, so the dish ended up oilier than it should have been.

The one outstanding part of the meal was sea bass, two just-cooked fillets tasting fresh and delightful. They came with mixed fresh herbs soaked in good olive oil, and had it stopped there the dish would have been excellent, but the attempt to integrate a vegetable into the dish had foundered: the thick, grey puree of fennel and cardamom underneath did nothing at all for it.

We had just decided not to eat a pudding, and to ask for the bill, when the water arrived. I found it remarkable that it took less time to produce a risotto and a double-baked souffle, to say nothing of two main courses, than to rustle up a jug of water.

The waitress now returned to tell us the good news that, having looked at the bottle of Alsace riesling again, they had decided it was tartrate crystals after all, so we could have drunk it. But, she added helpfully, they do get a lot of tartrate crystals in German wines. That may be so, we said, but Alsace is in France. No, it's in Germany, she insisted. I pointed to where it said France on the label, but this cut no ice. I count among my friends at least one Alsatian who would happily have torn her limb from limb for her heresy.

The menu is like the front of the building: impressive. The cooking is more like the back: ordinary. I wonder if Martin Lee is perhaps cooking in the wrong direction: starting with a fashionable menu he thinks he ought to produce, and working backwards to find a way of servicing it - even if that means compromises - rather than beginning with what he can do comfortably, and working outwards from there. Of course, it is all very good for a pub, but it still cost pounds 44 for two.

Jim Ainsworth is Editor of 'The Good Food Guide 1996'