Eating Out: Slow trip to paradise

MARSH GOOSE; High Street, Moreton-in-Marsh GL56 0AX. Tel: 01608 652111. Open Tue-Sun 12.30-2.30pm; Tue-Sat 7.30-9.45pm. Three-course set lunch pounds 14; average a la carte lunch pounds 25; three-course set dinner pounds 26.50. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
They've Got the quaint towns, we've got the better countryside. Well, that's what we like to think when we contemplate the Cotswolds from our neighbouring patch on the Northamptonshire/Warwickshire border. As it was, countryside paled into muddy insignificance as the rain chucked it down and junior grizzled. Bad ear infection, the doctor said one sleepless night later, which made me feel horribly guilty about dragging him out to a lunch which he patently didn't want to go to. Still, on a miserable morning, the prospect of a trip to a charming Cotswold town and a fine lunch to boot, is more tempting than the thought of trekking around Tesco. Junior had to lump it, poor little mite.

Off we went in family convoy, granny soon forging ahead. Even in a downpour, the high street of Moreton-in-Marsh is still as pretty as a rain-sodden picture. Even more attractive is the warmth that greets you as you step into the Marsh Goose. The walls inside are a soothing cream to match the bare stone and the objets d'art scattered around are pleasing eclectic, ranging from a fetching iron chicken with "a hairbrush on its bottom" (description courtesy of junior, by now in better form after a sleep and a slug of Calpol) via handsome wall-strung kilim, to reassuring pictures of fruit and vegetables. Rooms lead one into another, giving an impression of space and airiness to what must have been a series of small dark rooms. A log fire crackles in the central space, inviting the chilled arrivals to huddle in well-padded armchairs and sofas. Here we found granny, grinning from ear to ear, having been admirably cosseted while she waited.

This is no dull, old fashioned, Olde Englande sort of hang out. Sonia Kidney (you can't get a much better name for a chef than that) knows how to conjure up a fine combination of foods in what is entirely her own style. Where else would you find "chump of lamb with vanilla, tomato and chervil sauce", "sauteed duck livers with creamed celeriac and aubergine crisps" or indeed the most unexpected "casserole of lambs' kidneys, chorizo sausage and noisette potatoes"? And that last dish is just what I ordered for my first course without a moment's hesitation.

A fabulous combination, it turned out to be too; tender kidneys, excellent spicy chorizo as counterbalance, tiny, melting browned little balls of potato, all bathed in the kind of rich, dark jus that is a pain to create at home. My mother-in-law, who had gamely taken the dishes that I didn't order from the set menu (brilliant value at pounds 14 for three courses), started with a cool mound of smoked haddock layered with lightly spiced tomato and avocado, and topped with tiny, softly poached quails' eggs. Meanwhile, William came up trumps with the perfectly fired scallops, fat and sweet caramelised brown on the exterior, still juicily semi-raw but warm at the centre, served with a diamond of Parmesan-laden grilled polenta, voluptuous strips of roast red pepper and a suitably salty dark black olive dressing. The healthy child loved her cauliflower and rosemary soup, strange companions, I thought, verging on the edge of incompatibility, though not an opinion shared by my daughter.

Our main courses arrived almost an hour and a half after we arrived at the restaurant. This is not the place to come if you are after a swift repast, or even one of average duration. Granny was eventually placated with a lovely stew of veal, zipped into life, as veal needs to be, with a zestful olive, tomato and tarragon sauce. The olive oil mash went well with it, though I have to say I think mash needs butter, and olive oil is a modern affectation that doesn't bring out the best in a pureed potato.

I shouldn't dwell on it, since I was more occupied with my cod, nicely cooked though the skin might have been crisper, served on a sharp aubergine and spring onion ragout. The tartness came from shakes of balsamic vinegar, the flesh of the aubergine stained even darker with the aid of salty soy sauce. It worked well with the mild cod, as a sort of relish, though on its own it bowled in with too much acidity. The resistance of the mess of greens (Brussels tops, were they, or wintry spring greens?) was a bold touch to set against the softness of fish and aubergine. William's brill was slightly overdone, but the anchovy butter sauce and herb crust made up for that four fold.

On a previous visit to the Marsh Goose, I'd been quite knocked out by Sonia Kidney's Pear and Frangipane tart - up there with the gods, I thought - so my choice of pudding was inevitable. It was as good as I'd remembered, with divinely melting, crisp, thin pastry and heavenly tender, fragrant almond filling animated with thin slices of soft, grainy pear. William is a sucker for sticky toffee pudding and pronounced it everything a good sticky toffee pudding should be. Two devastatingly rich white and dark chocolate terrines were devoured by the oldest and youngest members of the party.

Sonia Kidney is very good at puddings. Well, she's pretty good at most things culinary. Still, if you wanted to cut the length of time you spend here, you could skip the last course and make a beeline to the Marsh Goose's small shop next door. It is mainly stocked with useful and/or snazzy kitchen equipment, but also does a nice line in wicked tarts and puddings to take away (not to mention an excellent selection of wines). The empire doesn't stop there, either. If you want a less formal setting for the Kidney delights, then head a few miles further on to Paxford, where they've taken over the pub to great local acclaim. If anyone can lift the standards of pub food, this team certainly can. Let's just hope you don't have to wait half an hour for every pint.