Great expectations

A stylish menu in deepest Essex
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The Independent Culture
How deep is deepest Essex? Not very, perhaps, but deep enough for me. If you're planning a visit to Wethersfield, I recommend half-an-hour's research with map and compass before setting off. Why bother? I had simply eaten at John Dickens' restaurant a few years ago.

Last time I went, I nibbled appetisers over an aperitif in the front room, but this time the entire house was devoted to dining, presumably a sign of a thriving business. My sister and I were led straight upstairs to a tiny minstrels' gallery, where two tables look down over the half-timbered room, and at first we wondered whether this was a coveted spot. Were we, perhaps, the envy of the poor souls on the ground floor, looking up at this romantic, all-seeing yet private eyrie?

The only other times you might get such a perspective are when watching a film, or having an out-of-body experience. And we decided that, had this really been the best view in the house, somebody else would surely have bagged the other table, which remained vacant all evening. But full marks for ingenious use of space, and with so few minstrels around these days it must have seemed a natural thing to do.

Likewise, we thought we had struck lucky when we saw the menu, which promised a warm salad of foie gras, grilled scallops, baked Aldeburgh cod, and two lamb dishes. Accompaniments - couscous, black bean sauce, a red pepper and lentil salsa - showed a healthy interest in what is happening outside Essex.

Since menus set up expectations, attention should be paid to writing them so as to indicate what the kitchen is proposing to serve. Had a first course been called "avocado, butter bean and chive salad", we might not have been disappointed, though to be honest we might not have chosen it. It was the first listed ingredient, "warm foie gras", that persuaded us to try the dish, imagining in our naivety a fat, seared slab wobbling with come-hither succulence. Hunger does that, I find.

I say naivety, because it cost only pounds 4.95. But we found the liver only by pushing the undistinguished leaves around the plate and poking at the bits. "Is that foie gras?" "No, it's a dark butter bean." It wasn't so much the four tiny nuggets of this luxury that bemused us, but a further question it posed. What was the salad's purpose in life? What was it trying to say to us?

Another odd thing about the menu was that it listed two lamb dishes: a very English-sounding braised lamb and onion pudding, and char-grilled, marinated lamb on Moroccan couscous. How enterprising, we thought, to serve two such contrasting dishes, and we were tempted to order both, because we love lamb. Attempts to elicit details of the onion job were not successful, but we wanted one anyway, out of curiosity.

Imagine, we said to ourselves on tasting it, that you made a Moroccan lamb dish at home and had some left over; what might you do with it? It might not occur to us to make a suet pudding but, if it did, we reckoned it would taste very like this. I am not complaining about the result - good suet, tasty meat and a spicy, cumin-flavoured sauce - merely wondering why the kitchen chose to put on two dishes that explored the same band of the flavour spectrum, and why the menu (or the staff) hadn't thought to point this out.

Apart from that, we enjoyed thin slices of a coarse terrine with a gentle walnut pickle, some roasted sea bass that was very fresh (but had been cooked too long) and a homely pear-and-almond tart with good pastry and delicate fruit flavour, served with an excellent kirsch ice-cream. The overcooked vegetables were less successful. The tapenade bread was delightful; it cost extra - pounds 1.35 - but prices are reasonable (around pounds 20 a head for food), so we didn't begrudge it.

Service was "there you go" stuff, but we were told that Maria Dickens was off with a bad back, and one of the regulars had gone on holiday, in which circumstances the new recruits coped well with the basics. The fact that we were up aloft, unable to flag down a passing waitress other than by throwing tapenade bread after her - which we were loath to do on account of its quality - was no handicap at all

Jim Ainsworth is Editor of 'The Good Food Guide 1996'

Dicken's Restaurant, The Green, Wethersfield, Braintree, Essex (01371- 850723). Open Wed-Sun, lunch 12.30-2pm, dinner 7.30-9.30pm (not Sun). '321' lunch, Wed-Fri and Sun, 3 courses pounds 30 for 2; 2-course lunch daily (not Sun), pounds 6.50. Visa, Access/Mastercard, Delta, Switch

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