It would be nice to think that sophisti-cated French travellers would now make the same kind of ecstatic discoveries here - it is listed in Michelin - but the last sophisti-cated French person I talked to about English country food, the wife of a former ambassador, held up her hands, allowed a dreamy expression to come into her eyes, and said: "Ah, le Petit Chef! C'etait de-li-cieux!"
What is also extremely nice about The Hungry Monk is the discreet Englishness of the service. There are eight tables, and the night we went there three girls were on duty, one managing the bar and reception, two working in the restaurant, the food arrived immediately we wanted it and none of them at any stage gave us a cabaret turn about our specials tonight including baby venison hearts drizzled in a sour cream and oyster custard whose price does not appear on the menu.
There was a party of international tennis players at the other end of the room and anywhere else I would have been tempted to ask the waitress who they were: at The Hungry Monk such questions would seem intrusive.
Not that is by any means posh: the entrance is through a heavy medievalised door on the lane, there are a lot of low beams and there is a variety of pictures on the walls, some of them humorous in tone and featuring monks. The tables are dark polished wood, the furnishings comfortable and unobtrusive. The only indicator of the restaurant's well established reputation is a heap of food guides for sale on a table by the door and their own cook books, priced at pounds 3.50.
The set dinner menu, offering a choice of seven starters, nine main courses and puddings, costs pounds 21.90 a head.
I started with seared scallops with samphire and fine bacon, which carried a supplement of pounds 1.75, and my wife, who was in a combative mood, asked for toasted goat cheese and pistachio souffle. There is a good wine list and we ordered a bottle of St Christoly, a Cru Bourgeois from the Medoc, which was excellent and very reasonable at pounds 13.64.
What my wife for some reason wanted to discuss in some depth was the meaning of the word "work". Did it have to be paid for it to be work? Was gardening work? Was cooking work? Was playing patience on my word processor when I am supposed to be writing a book work? Was the book itself work and how did writing it compare with, say, gardening? I took refuge in some line about the completion of a task, which reminded my wife that she hadn't completed dead-heading the roses. She was sure I wouldn't consider that was work.
At that moment the starters arrived. The goat cheese and pistachio souffle got an ecstatic response, she had no idea it was such a good restaurant. My scallops were perfectly cooked, delicate and firm, with fresh samphire and very thin and very crisp pieces of bacon.
I think at that moment one of the tennis players was saying he either had or hadn't played Agassi, but my wife was back on the great debate. Was it work if you enjoyed doing it? Could talking be work? I said I thought it probably could.
For the main course she had calves' liver with grilled polenta and intense sauce which carried no supplement and was, from the bit I had and her more informed judgement, excellent. She was worried about the word "intense", which she thought might be slightly affected, but came to the conclusion it just meant "very reduced", and as gravy it was certainly as good as the thick chunks of liver, pink on the inside and very tender.
I had confit of duck with sage and olive oil mashed potato, which I was embarrassed to see did carry a supplement, this time of pounds 2.50. There were plenty of alternatives without any surcharge, like fresh squid and prawns in a light curry sauce with risotto, or rabbit stifatho, or brochette of fresh Scotch salmon and monkfish with saffron tagliolini and sorrel sauce, and I suppose I should have had one of those, but the duck was wonderful and I am very glad I didn't. It fell off the bone, or off what little bone there was, the mashed potato with sage and olive oil was original and just right to go with it, and there was a side dish of carrot puree, new potatoes, red cabbage and broccoli, all of which could have come out of the garden that morning.
This, I am afraid, brought us back to the symposium. I rather foolishly suggested that work might be definable in terms of units of energy expended. My wife liked that idea and wondered whether it could be applied to what the lady in Hollywood did to Hugh Grant. If that was work, would it have been work for anybody else?
The Hungry Monk's banoffi pudding has won awards, one of which is displayed as a blue plaque outside. I was offered a slice to taste and it is okay if you like toffee and banana. Instead I had tulipe - a sweet biscuit curled up at the sides - of lemond curd, creme fraiche and sorbet with fruit coulis, which I would put in a different league. The sorbet was blackcurrant and deserved a wallful of plaques to itself. My wife had a chocolate sponge pudding with toffee sauce. It was very, very, very good.
Dinner came to pounds 68.04 without the tip. On the way out, my wife said she supposed that was what I called work.Reuse content