Eating out: Bath time for Lettonie
LETTONIE; 35 Kelston Road, Bath BA1 3QH. Tel: 01225 446676. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch from noon to 2pm and for dinner from 7pm to 9.30pm. Set lunch, pounds 25 for three courses; a la carte menu, pounds 39.50 for three courses (drinks not included). Credit cards accepted
Sunday 14 June 1998
We ended up, Janet, my publishing companion, Ros, and I, at an eaterie that my co-reviewer Hugh had already semi-marked with his signature. Almost exactly a year ago, he wrote a rave review of a small restaurant in the backstreets of Bristol. Lettonie was something of a cult place for those in the know, unexpected, snuck away, and astonishing. In his piece he noted that those responsible for it were on the up, with ambitious plans to move outwards and upwards to the ranks of country-house grandeur.
Aspirational it is too. Though Lettonie has merely exchanged the suburbs of Bristol for those of Bath. The house itself, however, hidden away behind a wall, lends itself well to the grandeur of the country establishment. If the sweeping drive is stunted, never mind, for the curtain swags, and glimmer of burnished antiques make up for any shortfall. Undoubtedly luxurious, like something from the heyday of Eighties county-house hotels (Americans probably adore it) with few obvious distinguishing features. Until that is, the amuse-gueules arrive. This moment reassures that there is something unique and interesting to be relished here.
On the plate in front of us, a red sea of exquisite sweet-potato crisps, twisting and curving in tortuous waves, parting for the crossing of a troop of saintly cheese biscuits, bordered with dark rims of poppy seeds. Promising, very promising indeed.
Intrigue and mystery follow discreetly, snuck away on the back of the elegant menu. "Tevzemei un brivabai" it reads. That's Latvian. Well, of course it is, for our chef/patron, Martin Blunos' parents are from Latvia, though he himself was born here.
Glimpses of Eastern Europe surface here and there - borsh terrine with beef piragi, caviare and blinis with scrambled duck eggs. I've always been led to believe that it is inviting all sorts of problems to only softly cook duck eggs, since their porous shells can absorb heaven knows what pernicious muck, but maybe these are of enormously hygienic and pristine pedigree. Anyway, I played safe with the borsh terrine, and was blessed in my choice. Well, I'm a sucker for beetroot. Just can't resist the stuff. The terrine was as elegant as the surroundings, with slivers of beetroot and carrot set in a well-flavoured purple beetroot jelly - an impressive display for a vegetable that is so often maligned. A little soured cream to sully the purity of the terrine in the most seductive fashion, and then the added bonus of a separate bowl of miniature beef pastes - the piragis - adding a good, savoury note as counterbalance to the natural sweetness of beetroot.
Much as I loved my first course, I had to admit that Ros's ravioli of crab was even better. The small but perfect quantity of cognac cream sauce, which had not much appealed to me on paper, was light and delicate. The crab hidden inside the ravioli married divinely with just the right amount of saffron. Lucky girl. Janet, meanwhile, was having a tedious time. Quite how it is possible to make boudin blanc (white "pudding", usually made with veal and/or chicken) so utterly tasteless and watery, it is hard to imagine.
The rest of the menu proceeds in a classic French manner. Our main courses confirmed without a shadow of a doubt that Martin Blunos' tour de force is fish. We all three turned seawards, and sweet, succulent chunky scallops made star appearances. (Scallops are big in Bath today - the superb fishmonger in the centre of town had already whispered to me confidentially that he had landed a haul of prime scallops - perhaps these were from the same batch.) My boned steak of seatrout arrives embracing a fat round pearly scallop, and more nestle around the fish. The light butter sauce and the delicate nuggets of vegetables turn this into a dish that conjures up the sheer joy of this time of year, when all is fresh, when days are lengthening, the new season ushers in our most delicious fish, and the most perfect young vegetables, miles away from the heavy foods of winter.
Rapt though we were by our various dishes, I couldn't help letting my attention be distracted every now and then by the gentle swish of the magnificent cheese trolley as it rolled past. None of that modern three teensy portions arranged artfully on a plate. Here was cheese in full glory, dozens of them, mostly French, in prime condition. Ros fell even more deeply for its allure, and settled comfortably, with considerable encouragement from the pair of us, for four or five morsels, including pencil shavings of tete de moine, and a piquant aged mimolette. With them came a small helping of pickled shallot to tease the deep flavours out even further.
The cheese was, I think, a wise choice. In Janet's pretty mousse it was well-nigh impossible to detect the eponymous pear, while my gratin of oranges with walnuts suffered from over-sharp fruit and slightly bitter walnuts. We gazed, not a little enviously, over at Ros's plate.
A patchy meal, then, but one with tremendous highs, most obvious when it came to fish, and well above average lows. And call me new-fangled, but I couldn't help but long for some little spark of modernity to creep in among the rather dated luxury. I itched to drop a chilli or an explosive bunch of coriander onto a dish or two. Or, less radically, to see more obvious traces of the nostalgia that puts Milda, the statue of Mother Latvia onto the cover of the menu, or uncle Harijs paintings of Latvian country scenes on the walls, appearing in the food.
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