EATING OUT Untroubled luxury on a plate

THE BEETLE AND WEDGE Ferry Lane, Moulsford, OX10 9JF. Tel: 01491 651381. The Dining Room is open Tues to Sun for lunch, Tues to Sat for dinner. Three-course set lunch £17.50; la carte dinner around £45 a head. All credit cards accepted
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ARRIVING in Moulsford in the dark in a thunderstorm, with white drifts of fallen hail incongruously lit by flashes of lightning, made The Beetle and Wedge even more welcome than I had expected. Once the home of Jerome K Jerome, it is now a hotel. It stands beside the Thames just south of Wallingford and has an international reputation for its food and comfort. The name comes from tools used in boatbuilding.

Due to the complication of arriving by train (Cholsey on the Oxford branch line from Reading is about five minutes away by taxi) I got there early. Nobody was really on duty, but a barman cheerfully suspended his conversation about his insurance claims to make me a drink, and I sat very happily in the Boathouse Bar for an hour waiting for my wife to arrive. New rolls of paper were fed into the electronic tills, napkins were folded, the identities of people who had reserved tables were discussed in an affectionate tone - "You know, lives up the road: plump, balding" - and somewhere in the kitchens a cook crooned in a melancholy voice, "Oh baby let your tits hang free".

The Boathouse, an old beamed brick building near the river, with a huge open grill they cook fish and steaks on, is the less expensive of the two restaurants, and when I looked in at the end of the evening it was full, despite the weather, with everyone eating and chattering away in a relaxed pub atmosphere.

The Dining Room, which I was fortunate enough to have been sent to review, is another world. In a conservatory rich in teak and brightly gleaming brass window-furniture, it was largely deserted, with a floor of huge dark pink tiles and pink candles to match burning in silver candlesticks on all the unoccupied tables. In the summer, with the windows and doors open, the sun shining, lawns down to the Thames and the hubbub of lunchers in blazers and silk dresses it must, it struck me, be rather a nightmare. On a winter's night, with the reflections of occasional headlamps gleaming like momentary moons in the glass roof, it was pure untroubled luxury.

Our orders had been taken by the fire in the adjoining room, where we were brought a little plate of appetisers. The menu is definitely expensive, with a choice of seven starters: avocado and fresh crab salad; artichoke heart with wild mushrooms and hollandaise sauce; a salad of warm duck livers and smoked pheasant; stirfry of squid, scallops, beansprouts, tomato and coriander; baked salmon with caviar sauce; hot Stilton souffl with wild mushroom sauce; and casserole of scallops, mussels and oysters with cumin and saffron. My wife chose the Stilton souffl and I asked for the casserole of scallops.

The wine list is very carefully chosen, with a majority of the bottles costing about £30 though there are various swanky chteaux at that much a glass and a house wine at £11. I ordered a bottle of Haut Cantenac at £18.50. I slightly regretted this, thinking the house red would probably have been as good.

A few minutes after we had ordered, the charming bespectacled French waitress bustled up and told us that my wife's souffl was in the oven and that unless we wanted a pancake we should come to our table. There was only one other couple in the dining room, both of a certain age: from the woman's soothing tone and apparent willingness to be delighted by everything, even by her elderly companion - "I think this is absolutely super!" - my wife decided that they couldn't possibly be married.

My casserole was one of the best things I have ever eaten: scallops, mussels, oysters all preserving their own texture and flavour, the soup wonderfully smooth and subtle. The souffl, according to my wife, was perfect, with a copper pot of wild mushroom sauce

For the main course, there were again seven choices: grilled sea bass with mussels, olives, tomato and basil; dover sole and seared scallops; supreme of duck; roast loin of hare; fillet of beef with snails, garlic and parsley; saut of calves' kidneys, sweetbreads and foie gras with lyonnaise onions; and roast loin of lamb with couscous and aubergine. My wife had the calves' kidneys and I chose the lamb. Both came with a big plate of spinach, broccoli, mange-tout, young carrots, parsnips and rsti.

Everything was delicious. Unqualified as I am, I hesitate to go too far into the realms of food criticism, but to the naive palate what was good about it was that every ingredient retained its original essence: the sweetbreads were full of their own flavour, just cooked enough, the thick little slices of pink lamb tasted of pure lamb and nothing else, the vegetables were all separate, distinct and fresh.

My wife was particularly impressed by the way they had cooked the onions, giving them an external crispness without losing any of their juiciness. This led to an extended French cabaret in which the onions were "feeneshed in a custard iron pun". This, we realised a moment or so later, was a cast-iron pan. Our waitress, who had only come to Britain with no English two years ago, was on the verge of returning to her native Lot: the hotel had given her a farewell party at the Savoy. Some of her friends criticised her for doing what they called "seely" work when she was burdened with diplomas, but she loved it.

Resisting pear and frangipane tart, poached apricots and plums, fresh Italian raspberries, meringues with Guernsey cream and beignets souffls with hot lemon curd, we ordered a chocolate rum truffle cake with white chocolate sauce and a hot cointreau souffl with raspberry sauce, and an ambulance.

I only managed the souffl, which was ambrosial, and we had mint tea by the fire before going home. Dinner for two, I have shamefacedly to confess, came to £107.45.

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