Forever France in Stratford

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The Independent Culture
AS A MECCA for tourists and theatre lovers, Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire is relatively well provided with relatively good restaurants. Of these Number Six in Union Street and Lamb's, sited suitably enough in Sheep Street, are among the best , withThe Opposition next door providing good simple food before or after the theatre without being either too ambitious or expensive.

The restaurant that lays the major claim to seriousness, however, is in the middle of town, in Rother Street, part of a comparatively inexpensive, pink-painted hotel without telephones or television in the bedrooms, the Caterham House.

Anyone expecting the kind of genteel Englishness the name might suggest is in for a shock. The restaurant, which is not expensive, is called Le Bonaparte and is passionately French. The cover of the menu, aggressively labelled "CARTE", shows a profile, not of the familiar Napoleon of Waterloo in the traditional hat, but of the angry young Bonaparte, the would-be Spain-to-the-Urals Eurochief.

When it first opened the story went that no one in the building could speak English - and it seems determined to prove that there is one corner of a foreign field at least that is forever France. To those in the habit of visiting provincial French towns on holiday, the bar of the Bonaparte, which doubles as the front hall of the hotel, will be immediately familiar. There is a low sofa, a low table with a few periodicals and tourist leaflets scattered on it and, immediately facing it all, an immensely high and daunting bar-cum-reception counter. Behind this, if you are very lucky, the proprietor will occasionally appear.

Dominique is a busy man. Seize your opportunity, ask for drinks and a menu, and you will get a little bowl of very nice olives and some nuts while you wait for another sighting.

As in France there was, the night I had dinner there, a good floor-show. A pair of heart-rendingly hip-height pants made in some tantalisingly fragile parody of check tweed with two inches of bare brown tummy above floated past en route for the stairs.

Then a waiter of woebegone appearance with what looked like a glued-on moustache partially come adrift raced suddenly past us into the restaurant, remaining visible through the half-open door, hoovering gloomily but energetically in the middle of dinner.

The menu, which changes about once a month, makes some concessions to the natives in offering an English translation. For starters there were a terrine of lamb fillet, "pistachio and nuts", a crayfish soup with chervil and croutons, a salade folle - "folly" - of foie gras with lavender vinegar, a timbale of scallops and gambas garnished with vegetable and sorrel sauce and a "selection of poultry and wild mushrooms".

My guest, Tony Hill, the burly dynamo who runs The Other Place, the Royal Shakespeare Company's studio theatre, had the terrine of lamb, while I had the crayfish soup. The wine list ranges in price from about £10 to £35 a bottle, and I ordered a bottle of Chateau Lacombe des Dames at £11.95.

Tony has known Dominique, the proprietor, since he first opened the Bonaparte, and talked about him in almost purely theatrical terms. He was a great character. Tony remembered introducing a guest to the restaurant and explaining that she was a vegetarian. Dominique, he said, shrugged with the kind of deferential sympathy you might express for someone suffering from some unfortunate disability and said nothing. Tony persisted, explaining that she could not eat meat or fish. Dominique thought about it and said: "Well, she can drink. Some wine perhaps?" Perhaps as a result of that encounter, the menu now offers, though in very small and grudging letters, "vegetarian dishes on request".

The corner of the lamb terrine I tasted was delicious, as was my robustly spiced soup, though I was a bit bewildered as to what I should do with the two-inch-long baby crayfish floating an the surface. I tried sucking one of its little claws, but only got soup on my fingers and came to the conclusion that it was there for decoration.

For the main course there was a choice of surprisingly zingy ideas that might owe something to the curry-hardened palates of some of Tony's Midlands customers. There was escalope de boeuf gratinee au roquefort, garnie aux capres, and a special of braisedpheasant with a pineapple sauce. Plus, more reassuringly, a filet d'agneau or filet de canard en croute.

We both decided to have fish. Tony had another special - a feuillette de brochet aux epinards aux crevettes. It was translated as "stuffed fillet of pike in a puff pastry served with prawns sauce", with no reference to the spinach, which was rolled in the pastry with the pike and provided the contrast in terms of taste and texture. I had filet de turbot en tapenade, pique d'anchois. The turbot, served on savoury toast, was fine, though its flavour, perhaps in deference to the Warwickshire craving for more violent sensations, was a bit swamped by the anchovy. Vegetables were included with both these, fresh and not overcooked. Everything was served either by Dominique himself or by the woebegone waiter, in a small double room of perhaps 10 tables, with surprising speed and efficiency.

We were tempted by the second menu - la patisserie Francaise - which offered a choice, mostly in French, of cherries in brandy in a chocolate mousse, Grand Marnier ice cream with home-made nougat, glazed fresh fruit with champagne sabayon sauce or profiteroles with a sorbet and hot chocolate sauce, but decided in the end to share one helping of caramelised pancakes with ginger sauce. They were very good.

Dinner for two, including drinks and wine and a pot of camomile tea, came to £62.50 without the tip.

LE BONAPARTE 58 Rother Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 6LT. Tel: 0789 267309.

Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Average price per person for 3-course lunch £13.95; dinner £20-£25. Visa and Access accepted.