County a la carte

A little place with grand meals
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The Independent Culture
The dream of quitting the urban rat race and opening tour own cottage restaurant can too often turn into a Fawlty Towers-style nightmare. But Moonacre, in a placid corner of Hampshire, just 30 minutes drive south of Salisbury, makes this fantasy come true. The very name suggests a fairy tale. In fact, the owners, Barbara Garnsworthy and Edward Bourke, inherited the name four years ago when they bought this small cottage that was a tea room located at a leafy crossroads in the village of Alderholt. "We like to keep things fairly simple," says Ms Garnsworthy, who does all the cooking, most of the time unaccompanied to an incredibly high standard. When asked to recommend some wine, Mr Bourke, a successful solicitor in real life, who manages the fron t of the house with poised and efficient help from several local yhoung ladies, immediately suggested the house white and red. At only pounds 7.50 a bottle, the attractions of the Chilean Chardonnay and Spanish Valdepenas survived even the bill . Plenty was consumed and the absence of a crippling 'house wine' hangover the next morning proved their value. Moonacre is small and unremarkable on the outside. You enter via a tiny bar-lounge area into an L shaped dining room that can seat just 36 people. The walls are painted terracotta, the tables covered with blue linen, the ceiling partially beamed. You rea lly do feel as if (as so many restaurants promise but so rarely deliver) you are a guest at a dinner party in someone's home. There were nine of us at table and this made the dinner party illusion seem even more real. We sampled almost everything on the menu and there was nothing but delight expressed for the food. That Ms Garnsworthy offers seven starters, seven main courses a nd seven puddings every evening - and Sunday lunch too - and that she changes her menu daily underscores the fact that, although self taught, she is far from an amateur chef. Like all top professionals, she is also very discerning about her suppliers and takes daily deliveries of fresh fish, game and produce. The starters ranged in price from pounds 2 - for cream of pea, spring onion and mint soup - to pounds 4.50 for Denhay air dried ham with melon, ginger and honey dressing. My neighbour's aubergine and goats' cheese pate with tomato and red pepper garnish was better than many similar starters I've been served in some of West London's most popular restaurants. But my own choice: monkfish, brill and crab served au gratin with a mixture of Cheddar and gruyere cheese, as rich and balanced and addictive as any thing I've ever been served in a Michelin starred restaurant across the Channel. This dish alone would make Moonacre worth a detour. The main courses were served in generous portions and priced between pounds 9 (a chicken breast with apple, cider and grain mustard that conjured immediate memories of Normandy) and pounds 12 for the fillet steak (with wild mushroom pate, red wine and s hallots). The wild salmon with samphire, dill and lemon cream sauce was a very big favourite at our table, as was the peppered duck breast with a garlic and thyme sauce. But, yet again, I thought I scored very high with my own selection of scallops prepa red with bacon, mushrooms, basil and white wine. Restaurants that have kitchen staffs numbering several dozen would be drop-dead envious of the results jproduced by Ms Garnsworthy's solo effort here. Moonacre's list of puddings was at once straightfoward and the stuff of daydreams: white chocolate cheesecake with fresh cherries; summer pudding, lemon meringue ice cream, apricot and almond tart with honey ice-cream. One of the chef's real talentssee ms to be an unerring instinct for just the right embellishment, extravagant but never over the top. This was evident than in my dark chocolate and prune cake served with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. So simple, yet exactly right. The priceof a ll the puddings is the same: pounds 2.80. Now, in these days when restaurants routinely charge pounds 5 or more for a think slice of mediocre lemon tart, that is a dream come true. In fact, while this little country restaraunt, where a couple can dine so sumptuously for about pounds 45 may sound like a fairy tale. I promise you the reality is even better.

Emily Green is away

Moonacre, Aldershot, near Fordingbridge Hampshire SP6 3BB (01425 653142) Open Tues to Sat 7-10pm.Sunday 12-2pm