EATING OUT: When Harry cooked Bambi

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The Independent Culture
HARRY'S PLACE

17 High Street, Great Gonerby, Lincolnshire NG31 8JS. Tel: 01476 61780 Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday, 12.30-2.00 and 7.00-9.30.

Starters pounds 6.50 -pounds 14.50, main courses pounds 18.50-pounds 22.50. Access and Visa accepted

Grantham, for a town so closely associated with Baroness Thatcher and once described as "the most boring place in England," has very considerable charm. Lincolnshire, contrary to accepted teaching, is not flat, and the roofs and chimney-pots stand out against a distant landscape of low hills and well-hedged fields. The high spire of St Wulfram's, a beautiful parish church, soars above a pretty jumble of early stone buildings and venerable brick houses, and the Blue Pig opposite is a nice welcoming old pub.

Looking for food in the more modern town centre, near the Thatcheresque Sir Isaac Newton Shopping Mall - poor Sir Isaac is Grantham's other celebrity - might be a grimmer quest. The only restaurant I could see was another wok joke - Wok This Way.

Less than a mile north, however, on what used to be the old A2 at Great Gonerby, is a gastronome's heaven. It is quite difficult to spot, being in the front room of what looks like a perfectly ordinary house. It is opposite The Recruiting Sergeant, and has a little blue neon sign above the front door saying Harry's RESTAURANT Place, except that the word "restaurant" is in much smaller letters. Harry Hallam does the cooking and answers the telephone, his pretty wife Caroline serves the food, and there are three tables, accommodating in all ten people.

Because of its size Harry's Place might not seem worth mentioning, but it is a restaurant of international repute that keeps the flame of excellence burning, like a monastery preserving civilisation in the Dark Ages. It has been going now for seven years.

Not having any innocent old friends in Grantham who might serve to be dragged through this column I offered myself as a blind date to the local broadcaster and gardening authority Daphne Ledward. I had heard her on the radio, liked her sexy Bradford accent and her manifestly satirical attitude to Dr Stefan Buczacki. Her husband dropped in shortly before we ordered, ostensibly to bring her keys, but actually to reassure himself that I was not a maniac on the loose. Fortunately we had friends in common at the BBC.

Harry's Place has a hand-written menu, and offers two starters, two main courses and two puddings. There is also a hand-written list of chateau wines ranging from about pounds 20 a bottle to a Montrachet 1988 at pounds 129.00. Unlike some of the larkier spots I have investigated recently on your behalf, it is not cheap. Against that, the food was beyond praise.

While Daphne was explaining how she had become a "yellowbelly" - a term meaning a Lincolnshire person and apparently drawn from newts - Caroline Hallam brought us tiny canapes made with English goat's cheese, a sliver of black olive and some kind of wonderfully Provencal tomato sauce.

Choosing our food was simple. I let Daphne have first choice, then I had what was left. We then rambled happily off on a light-hearted appreciation of the economics of Classic FM.

We were stopped in our conversational tracks by the food. She had asked for Oeuf Caroline, a lightly poached egg served in a pastry case with sweet corn and gratinated with Hollandaise sauce. This meant that I had Soupe de Tomates Fraiches au Pistou. We didn't really know each other well enough at that stage for me to ask for a scoop of her poached egg, and I would have resisted the idea of sweet corn in anything, but she said it was very good indeed, and my tomato soup in the Italian manner was the perfect essence of tomatoes, brightened with garlic and basil and worth an award of its own.

I had ordered, meanly, one of the cheapest bottles of wine, a Chateau Cantemerle 1992, but even that was excellent, and my companion and I enjoyed a lively analysis of gardening programmes in general. Long considered a growth industry that would never stop growing, Daphne thought they might be beginning to level off. From some of the recent shows I'd seen where all the old romantic photography and pretty music had been junked for the real world of mud, old bits of string and broken bamboo canes I thought she might be right.

For our main course, she had Filleted Loin of Scottish Baby Roe Deer, served with a sauce of tarragon, white wine and Madeira, and I had Fillet of River Dee Wild Salmon, sauteed and served with a sauce of Sauternes and Noilly Prat. After all that booze I had no inhibitions about asking if I could spear a roundel of her baby roe deer. Caroline Hallam introduced it as "Bambi", and it was, as Daphne said, a far cry from venison, tender, delicate and delicious. I reluctantly parted with a piece of salmon. It was underdone, gleamed, fell apart under a scattering of wild rice flavoured with everything delicious - the nearest thing I have tasted to ambrosia.

My guest finished up with a Caramel Mousse Brulee with a little heap of raspberries, and I had Rhubarb Souffle. Both were perfectly made from exquisite ingredients, and like the rest of the dinner left you with every taste fantasy exactly satisfied, serene and comfortably content. I was so carried away I ordered a glass of Sauternes, and we concluded, modestly, with camomile tea.

The bill, which included a glass of white wine Daphne had ordered to fortify her against the shock of our first encounter, came without a tip to pounds 100.60.

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