Then you go back through the dark tunnel under the road - with the date 1815 carved on the arch - and find the more familiar and prosperous signs of a country-house hotel. Bishopstrow House under its present management makes an astonishing effort: there are real log fires in the hall and in the public rooms. A lot of trouble has been taken to hide the indoor pool, health club and tennis court. The restaurant, therefore, comes as a bit of a shock.
A carved and polished painted wooden figure of a chef stands at the door with an outsize fork and, as we walked down the steps, a piano version of the Funeral March was being piped through the system in that particularly splashy style favoured by American bar pianists. This soon gave way to a massive Hollywood Bowl- type orchestra. There were blue ribbons painted on the walls under cornices picked out in terracotta, and 18th-century- style chairs upholstered either in plaid or chintz.
The waitress, a trim and charming woman approaching middle age and with dark red lipstick, brought us the menu. A portly young English executive in round glasses, shimmered in, concerned girlfriend in tow, a skinny American with what could have been a pair of black lace knickers tied in a bow in her vigorously back-combed pale blonde hair. Her companion was in a check shirt; then came a family of Danes. The music was now highlights from the Wonderful World of the Opera.
But the food, I may as well say at the outset, was incredibly good. There was a wide choice of starters, with various kinds of salads, including rocket and marchengo and a crab salad with grilled aubergines, smoked ham, pork and venison terrine, an autumn soup, and a special that day, a chicken-liver parfait with home-made chutney. In the end my wife chose a crispy duck confit in a shallot and cassis dressing, and I had smoked salmon with a poached egg, creme fraiche and chives.
The duck won, as it were, hands down. The smoked salmon was as oily and fresh and perfect as you could hope for, the poached egg slightly better than scrambled eggs as an accompaniment, and the creme fraiche and chives made it all the more luxurious. But the duck, which I got a mouthful of for good behaviour, was award-winning. The skin was crisp but juicy at the same time, flavoured with the shallots and the cassis, the duck itself was cooked exactly enough and no more, and there were little potatoes in the rich sauce it came in.
The wine list was extensive, and indeed expensive if you want a bottle of Richebourg 1947 at pounds 385, but most offerings were unusually reasonable. In particular I found a Californian red, Fog Mountain at pounds 13.50, and ordered it. My wife, who is used to better things, winced slightly when she tasted it, but it seemed to be a nice bright colour, and, as promised in the wine list, "very easy drinking".
The main courses again offered a very wide choice: baked sea bass, pan- fried skate, tagliatelle pasta with pequillo peppers, saddle of lamb, shoulder of lamb, duckling with spiced aubergine and chorizo, chargrilled chicken with girolles and leeks. My wife had polenta-crusted fish cakes, and I had smoked tenderloin of pork with roast shallots and wild-mushroom risotto. Again, both were very good, in this case mine slightly nicer.
The fish cake looked a bit threatening, poised like a puff-ball on crossed asparagus stalks on top of a little tower of spinach. The polenta crust was perhaps a little too robust for its purpose, but the mixture of scallops and whitefish inside was beyond praise, and the parsley sauce perfect. It also scored a footnote on the menu for being "low fat". My pork, which did not, was cooked more in the style pioneered, I think, by The Castle at Taunton, that is to say with old- fashioned West Country thoroughness till the meat is absolutely tender and the flavours permeate every mouthful.
By this time the Muzak had stopped, the American accents had grown soft and seductive, reminiscent only of favourite old films, and we faced up to the final choice with two glasses of Essencia Orange Muscat, Californian pudding wine at pounds 3.25 a glass. There was spiced exotic fruit with iced coconut, opus of chocolate with almond milk, sorbets, prune and armagnac ice cream, chocolate mousse, even blackberry and apple tart, but I had a passion fruit creme brulee, and my wife had the today's special, which was a sabayon of berries. Squadrons of fresh blackberries, strawberries, and somehow, fresh raspberries massed round a little basket of mango ice cream in a very delicious egg custard. It was, my sophisticated wife said, "the best pudding she had had for a very long time".
The economics at Bishopstrow House are a bit complicated. If you stay the night - pounds 90 a head for a hugely comfortable four-poster, bath, shower, mounds of thick towels, with continental breakfast at pounds 1 each - you pay for your wine and any drinks and get the entire dinner, all three courses, for free. At the weekend non-residents get three courses for pounds 26.50 a head. During the week they charge according to the menu, which works out, on average, about the same. !Reuse content