Eating Out: What, no sun-dried tomatoes?

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The Independent Culture
MORSTON HALL HOTEL

Morston, Holt, Norfolk NR25 7AA, tel: 0263 741041.

Open to non-residents for dinner daily and Sunday lunch. Set menu pounds 13 for lunch,

pounds 21 for dinner. Special diets catered for. All major cards accepted.

IN FILMS the crunching of gravel under tyres is habitually followed by the appearance of a lugubrious, elderly butler who has devoted his life to meeting the domestic needs of others. It is a sound that means everything is going to be taken care of, and it is what greeted us when we drove into Morston Hall. With no sweeping driveway to crunch, just a car park, we weren't talking untrammelled luxury. Nevertheless, as we walked into the stone-flagged hall of the Norfolk farmhouse turned country hotel, the smiling, slightly hesitant manner of the maitre d' confirmed that stress was to be kept to a minimum. No W11 froideur, here.

One of the most stressful things about going to a restaurant can be deciding what to have. How can an averagely greedy person choose between scallops with lentil and coriander sauce and noisette of venison with foie gras and madeira sauce? To me it doesn't seem like an either/or; at best, it's a now and later. And then there's what time to eat: the skinnies favour waiting until it is getting on for bedtime, while some of us struggle on until 8.30 in order to preserve a semblance of sophistication. At Morston Hall there is no argument: dinner is at 7.30 for 8 and there is a single set menu (price pounds 21). This may appear to benefit the kitchen more than the diners and to smack of institutional living, but the atmosphere was considerably more benign than any institution I have ever belonged to.

Morston Hall takes its food very seriously. Chef Galton Blakiston was John Tovey's head chef at the renowned Miller Howe Hotel in Windermere. He returned to his native Norfolk to open this place with two of his colleagues from Cumbria, one of whom is now his wife. They are rightly proud of their achievement - AA Newcomers of the Year in 1992, noted by Egon Ronay for outstanding desserts and as one of Norfolk's very best hotels - and have a back lobby covered with the sort of photographs that fill local newspapers under headlines like 'Norfolk Chef's Recipe for Success'. Among the knick-knacks on the windowsill is a further tribute, perhaps from an admirer, in the form of a knitted chef (cf. knitted poodles).

A similar note was struck by the wine list. It came wrapped in a loose cloth cover, hand-

embroidered with an applique of the exterior of the hotel. The building was made of hessian, the roof of corduroy to create the ridged-tile effect. It was the sort of thing, like a pyjama case, that might have been made by a loving aunt. Far from jarring with the otherwise traditional style of the place, it contributed to the feeling that many people wished this venture well.

Inside about 75 wines were listed under grape variety with helpful descriptions, about half of which were from the New World. By now we were so coddled that we were unable to make a choice and settled for the two wines recommended on the menu, a pleasant enough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (at pounds 15) and a very nice Red Saumur ( pounds 13) for our meat course.

Our menu for the evening was from the old school rather than of the sun-dried-tomatoes- with-everything tendency. There were few surprises and no flights of fancy (discounting the butter pats shaped into swans). But equally there were no disappointments.

We started with a light, chilled gazpacho. My companions had exchanged worried glances when they saw this on the menu; one of them apparently has a medical condition that can be activated by gazpacho. They didn't elaborate, but decided to risk it. Thankfully, the soup came and went without producing any noticeable side effects other than the occasional appreciative 'Mmmm'.

Then came smoked haddock mousse on a cucumber circle served with basil vinaigrette, which one of my companions particularly liked but I found a bit odd. The mousse was warm, which was fine, but so was the sliced cucumber circle and the basil vinaigrette. I was particularly troubled by the cucumber, which in its more usual manifestation would have been a more satisfying counter-taste and texture to the creamy mousse.

The main course was a surprise: fillet of beef Wellington with a rich port wine gravy - not a dish that immediately conjures up perfect summer evenings. (We learnt from the chef later that it was a special request from the large family party in the corner.) Yet it was delicious. The beef was meltingly tender, the pate and pastry surrounding it of the finest quality, and the vegetables - ratatouille, new potatoes and turnip puree - tasted wonderfully fresh, with contrasting and complementary flavours.

For pudding there was, finally, choice. Luckily there was a selection of three, so we picked one each and shared. Our favourite was without doubt a classic chilled lemon souffle. The raspberry jelly with vanilla pod and Marscapone cream ices suited me very well, but the others were disappointed that the raspberries seemed to be frozen rather than fresh. The third pudding was strangely old-fashioned. I'd forgotten that creme caramel (which came with poached apricots) tasted so good, but we could all see why it has lost its place on most menus to the more dashing creme brulee. There was also a cheese platter with home-made chutney, but not for us.

As we finished our meal the chef circulated around the tables, challenged by our neighbours on the the absence of breadcrumbs in the gazpacho - maybe that's how we avoided a health crisis at our table - and by us on the choice of beef Wellington on a day when we were applying jungle-formula insect repellent. Galton told us he would normally serve it with a salsa, making it quite clear that he was more of a culinary buccaneer than some of his clients would allow.

The name, by the way, is a family one. He is named after his great-great-uncle, Sir Francis Galton, who invented the fingerprint test and, I learn from the biographical encyclopaedia, wrote Hereditary Genius (1869). After being put to the triple-palate test, Galton Jnr may not have inherited his forebear's scientific genius, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that his great- great-auntie was a devil in the kitchen.

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