Eating Out: Sweet-toothed was she

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The Independent Culture
WIFE OF BATH

4 Upper Bridge Street, Wye, Kent TN25 5AW. Tel: 01233 812 540 and 812232. Open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 1.45pm for lunch, and 7pm to 9.45pm for dinner. Set two-course lunch, pounds 10. Average a la carte price for lunch, pounds 25. Set three-course dinner, pounds 23.50. House wine from pounds 12.25. Credit cards accepted.

FATE HAS LURED me back to Kent again, my second sojourn in the Garden of England in a fortnight. The location has changed and we're settled for the week in the large village (or is it a small town? - borderline, I guess) of Wye, near Ashford. It is a fascinating place, unusually cosmopolitan for a country haven, thanks to the Wye College of Agriculture (a lone country outpost of the University of London), which may not be that well known here, but has an impressive international reputation that draws in students from the world over.

In terms of supplies, it is blessed, especially at this most abundant and productive time of year. Marvellously fresh fish comes from the nearby coast; local fruit and vegetables abound. Organic supplies are plentiful and herbs grow vigorously. And to satisfy the cravings of homesick students, a weekly van turns up in the village, bringing varied supplies of spices and exotica to allow them to cook up a small taste of wherever home is.

The chef at the Wife of Bath is an uncommonly lucky man, with all this glorious bounty at his fingertips. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to spot both ostrich and red snapper on the menu, not to mention deeply unseasonal chestnuts. In fact, now that I look at it, the menu reads as distinctly wintry, with an emphasis on starchy foods - saffron mash, lentils, sweet potato, rosti potato - and the sturdier cold weather helpings of black pudding and a confit of rabbit. The Mediterranean thunderbolt has not struck here, which is not necessarily a bad thing, given our mainly chilly summer.

As it happens, I spot the snapper again two days later at a fish supplier's in Whitstable. Flown in from a far-flung sea, it is lolling among some incredibly fresh local fish - iridescent, tiger-striped mackerel, and immaculate-looking plaice with fluorescent orange spots. I guess plaice and mackerel are not considered fancy enough for a smart restaurant, though I suspect that since they had barely been away from the sea for more than a day, their flavour could have beaten the imported fish hands down.

The restaurant is prettily and inoffensively turned out, trim and attractive, with pale walls and a comfortable atmosphere. The one feature that has stayed with me since eating there is the brace of beautiful old French metal bakery moulds that hung on the wall opposite our table. I recognised them, for I have lusted after the very same items in Conran's chef's shop at the Bluebird, but balked at the ferocious price.

In an inspired moment, my husband William described the place as "Michel Guerard meets the WI". He's definitely hit the mark, albeit in an exaggerated fashion: the cooking is France meets England via the occasional flight of fancy. The front of house staff cluck and smile at the customers, making sure, in a comforting, maternal way, that all is well.

There's also a very cosy arrangement when it comes to wine. Since we were driving and tired, neither of us fancied much alcohol at all. No problem there. We were offered a bottle of any of the several house wines, and would only be charged for what we drank. All in all a very reasonable sort of a deal.

The Michel Guerard touch comes in the form of a little amuse-bouche of rather thin spinach soup with tiddly croutons, and later on a between-courses sorbet (apple), the likes of which I haven't seen for a long time. Personally I would quite happily have done without either the soup or the sorbet, and William felt that neither amused his mouth a great deal.

The meal proper launched off on a high with the most delicious concoction of tiny cubes of roasted aubergine, mixed in with Puy lentils and bound with a creamy, not-too- rich sauce flavoured with balsamic vinegar. A lovely blend of earthy flavours, lifted by the hint of sharpness and complementary but disparate textures. The squid in William's fresh squid salad was indeed very tender with a good sturdy flavour, but he mourned the lightness of hand that made the nuoc cham (Thai fish sauce) dressing. A bit more salty savour and verve could have turned it into something very appetising.

Our proximity to the sea made fish an inevitable choice for the main course. Since our home is about as far away from the salty brine as you can get in this country, we tend to leap at any opportunity to tuck into good seafare. Disappointment was in store, however. Both the sea bass and lemon sole had undoubtedly been of good quality, but both were hopelessly over-cooked. So too, was the limp samphire that accompanied my helping of bass.

Puddings returned fair and square to the WI side of the deal. Hooray. They were a taste of the old days, which took us back two decades or so to the delights of roulades, and even nicer, brown bread ice-cream - the speciality of the house. I fell for it completely - that lovely marriage of slightly chewy caramelised crumb with rich frozen cream. Every bit as good as any cutesy combination conjured up by Messrs Ben and Jerry. William was less enthused by his raspberry cheesecake, but I did notice that it disappeared with impressive swiftness.

Possibly the highlight of the whole meal, however, arrived with our coffee. The sight of a Lady Katy chocolate was a suitable finale to the meal. Enclosed in its glossy freshness-sealed-in wrapper, with a coy Lady Katy emblazoned on it, the real pleasure came as the chocolate cameo inside was revealed. I can't say that the chocolate itself was any great shakes, but that's hardly the point. The white chocolate relief of the Lady, against the dark chocolate oval was so deliciously kitsch that little else mattered. We begged two extra for the children, paid our bill, and disappeared into the night, curiously comforted and cosseted.

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