EATING OUT: Food, but not as we know it

THE ORANGE BALLOON; 150-152 High Street, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1BB. Tel: 01732 368 008. Open daily for lunch 11am-3pm and Mon-Sat for dinner 6-11pm. Table d'hote menu served lunchtimes and Mon-Thurs evenings, one course pounds 8.50, two courses pounds 12.50, three courses pounds 16.50. Average a la carte price, pounds 20 p er person. Credit cards accepted
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THE THEORY is admirable: a chain of restaurants (the fifth opens in the autumn) designed with the family in mind, but that doesn't sink to the depths of the majority. Good design, good service, good food. Child- friendly during the day, yet funky enough to appeal to the youthful dinkies and sinkies (double/single income no kids yet) with disposable funds to spend, as well as parents let out alone in the evening. Sounds promising, and since fate had lured us to a small hotel in the centre of Tonbridge for the night, we took our chances and trooped in.

The Tonbridge branch was one of the first Orange Balloons to open (there are two more in Hertfordshire and one in Twickenham) and on the design front it certainly meets its brief. Clean, curving lines, bright but not intrusive colours, comfortable chairs, cobalt blue show plates, and big bold modern paintings, conspire to please the eye and put customers at their ease. Well, it certainly did the trick for our weary crew. A round of G&Ts later and we were having a ball. I did notice, however, that the restaurant was not exactly heaving but then Thursday night in Tonbridge is hardly likely to be party night. My producer, who had been in the town the previous evening, assured me that it was considerably more densely populated than it had been then. It had looked so empty, she said, that she had given it a miss in favour of the more lively Pizza Express down the road.

As the night progressed we began to understand why the chairs of one chain of restaurants were largely occupied, while those of this other, smaller chain were evidently not, at least not mid-week. The front of house staff, I assure you quickly, were quite delightful: smiley, chirpy, friendly, open and efficient. A fine, small team of young people with a decidedly amiable bent and happy demeanour. They are absolutely not to blame. It's the food that has to take the rap, and if I were a native of Tonbridge, I'd feel downright insulted that smart alecs from outside had dared to foist such third-rate fodder on me.

It's only fair to begin with the three tolerable dishes consumed by our party of five. The first was a starter of crabcakes with a Thai spiced sauce served with stir-fry vegetables. I doubt that anyone from Thailand would have recognised the sauce, but it was pleasant enough with a mildly spicy edge that went well with the slightly solid and light-on-crab crabcakes. The "stir-fry" was oily, lacking the distinctive smoky, soft/crisp finish of vegetables that have been properly cooked over a belting heat but, for all that, quite palatable. The second was my main course of grilled calf's liver (a touch over-done, but not reduced to leather) and bacon with a generous helping of mashed potato (said to be garlicky, though I would never have guessed), laced with a decent gravy. The third was a dish of crispy duck confit (not particularly crisp, said its recipient), served with quite pleasant Lyonnaise potatoes. There ends the positive strand.

Where do I begin with the rest? Probably with the pappardelle, bands of wide, flat pasta that were meant to be dressed in a herb oil, though the herbal presence was hard to detect (ironic, really, as we were filming a series on herbs - had I known, I'd have brought a handful in with me from the aromatic, herb-laden location). Singularly under-seasoned, and begging for a dumper-truck-load of Parmesan, the accompanying compote of sweet peppers and red onion (we'd been filming one of those only a week before, but unfortunately I didn't have the recipe on me) lacked flavour almost entirely. Wet and dull and tasteless, its only virtue was that the vegetables had once been lively and as such may still have borne a trace of vitamins and minerals somewhere in their bedraggled midst.

Two of my colleagues asked for the fresh tuna nicoise salad. Despite our having asked for the tuna to be cooked rare, the meagre, thin slabs of fish arrived grey, overdone and miserably dry to the core. The tomatoes and several other ingredients were icy cold and tasteless to boot. The other ingredients died under the grim dressing.

Still, this was a better dish than the awe- inspiringly awful cold cucumber soup, which tasted as if it were nothing more than a tired old cucumber passed through the liquidiser with too much raw red chilli. I imagine that something else must have entered the fray, but it was doing a marvellous job of hiding its light under a bushel.

The final howler came in the form of what was described as meringue but seemed to me to be a solidified lump of polystyrene, accompanied by "cheesecake cream" that tasted of nothing more than a spoonful or two of cheap cream-cheese, let down by a slug of milk. The mango and passion fruit pulp that surrounded the terrible duo was, I'm relieved to say, quite as it should be, which made it something of a highlight.

Over in one corner, a wise drunk was avoiding victuals altogether in favour of liquid refreshment, and the sympathetic shifts of staff, deputised to listen, treated him kindly and prevented trouble. He had, we couldn't help but hear, just split up with his wife; I guess this was one place where he could be sure of a warm welcome and little chance of bumping into any of his mates. On his way out, he paused long enough to enquire whether we were members of the Barney Rubble appreciation society, and wove outward into the night.

At the door we were handed a promotion- al brochure, fronted with a large photograph of a beaming Brian Turner (the use of his image may do something for the Orange Balloon, but the association can't do him any favours), which promised "fabulous food, friendly faces". Friendly - yes, faces - yes, food - well, I suppose so, but fabulous? Forget it. In some situations, three out of four isn't bad, but this ain't one of them.