EATING OUT; By the waters of Derbyshire

RIVERSIDE COUNTRY HOUSE HOTEL; Fennel Street, Ashford, Bakewell, Derbyshire DE45 1QF. Tel: 01629 814275. Open every day for lunch, 12-1.30, and dinner, 7-9.30. Three-course set lunch pounds 14.50. A la carte dinner, three courses for around pounds 18. All credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THE Spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire, 25 miles south-east of Manchester but isolated in a high green bowl in the mountains in the middle of the Peak District National Park, is one of our great unexploited national assets. In any civilised European country, some enterprising consortium of capital and local government would have plugged Buxton into the international Health and Beauty network and made a fortune. As it is, the elegant old town enjoys only very modest prosperity and waits there dreaming of the good old days, its hotels and pavilions and pleasure gardens ticking over on Eastern European time, grimly cutting back on the budget for its brief summer festival on the grounds that it is "elitist".

Politics are not really within the range of a naive restaurant review, but it does seem to be the case - under whatever system, and in whatever field - that excellence begets competition. To find it in Buxton, though, you have to drive about 12 miles.

The Riverside Country House Hotel at Ashford-in-the-Water, an unusually pretty village even by Derbyshire standards, is reached from Buxton through one of the most picturesque valleys in Europe. The road winds beside the river under high craggy forest on both sides, and the hotel - when you get there - is an English Tourist Board dream of a place. It's a little stone-built manor house with a dovecote and green lawns and a fast-flowing river running through the garden. Once the home of a retired doctor, it has done its best to keep the character of a private house.

I had dinner there with a friend who lives nearby, who remembered it in the days of the old doctor. She was impressed by how little it had changed. We got there on a perfect summer evening, with the sun shining warm yellow on the stonework and the river running black under the old trees. The weather being so beautiful, and the fact that we spent a great deal of the time laughing, may have influenced my opinion, but I think the Riverside can be safely recommended.

Some might bridle - but then I must remember I am not your French critic - at the grammatical incorrectness of the so-called Menu Gourmande - "menu" being masculine. Others might jib at its price: pounds 29 a head is not cheap. But the reassuring thing about the Riverside is the clientele. There was only one couple whom a casting director would have picked out as being Conspicuously Rich, and indeed they were very slightly snooty. Even though we were dressed for a concert, I think my friend and I could probably have passed for Batty Bohemian. Everyone else was having a good time, and good crusty local Derbyshire accents dominated.

We were brought the menu and the wine list in a sitting room - the chairs were covered in that kind of taut synthetic velvet preferred by some upmarket country hotels, but then I'm not employed as your furniture critic either - and asked whether we would like the chef's savoury and the sorbet. We said we would, and also ordered our starters, a smoked and fresh salmon terrine with a citrus dressing, and home-cured beef with marinated wild mushrooms and Parmesan.

For the main course we asked for tomato and basil polenta with ratatouille, and roast breast of guinea fowl with braised haricot beans. The wine list looked pretty impressive and not over-priced, but as we were driving on to a late evening entertainment we restrained ourselves and had half a bottle of Chablis and half a bottle of claret.

At the table we were brought the chef's savoury, which was a slice of unusually good home-made pink chicken liver pate with warm toast and sweet chutney. A good restaurant is a place you go to relax and to talk, and however good the pate was - and it was absolutely delicious - the best thing about dinner from then on was the sense of being in safe hands, of not having to worry about anything.

In theatrical terms this is called pace, carrying the show forward with such confidence and energy that the audience hasn't time to question whether what is happening on the stage is anything other than the truth. In terms of running a restaurant, it is similarly to do with teamwork: those taking the orders and serving the food are as important in making customers happy as the cooks in the kitchen, and the team at the Riverside works extraordinarily well, the service being as subtle and as well thought-out as the food.

The home-cured beef was cut in quite thick slices, very rare and tender, marinated like the mushrooms, and with the Parmesan rather surprisingly grilled into a little circular cake. I think I would have preferred it if the Parmesan had been plain grated, but it was original and very good. The terrine was a very moist and fragile suspension of smoked and poached salmon, which I thought very good indeed but which my companion wasn't wild about.

We were then brought a really delicious mango sorbet.

The main course was as distinguished as the first. My guinea fowl was cooked perfectly, and came with crunchy bits of bacon and fresh vegetables; the polenta was so good that I wasn't even allowed a corner.

The cheeseboard sounded too interesting to miss - there was local Hartington Stilton, smoked Wedmore and Irish camembert - and I asked for some Cornish yarg, largely because of the name. It was very pale and soft, otherwise like Cheddar. My friend had a lemon brulee, which she went into raptures about. We asked about the alternatives to coffee, and the girl waiting on our table won an extra rosette for reciting, "We have jasmine, camo- mile, rose hip, Earl Grey or Assam", as if it were a nursery rhyme.

We had the camomile and drove into Buxton in the luminous dusk feeling entirely replete. Dinner for both of us, including drinks but without a tip, came to pounds 78.