THE Leatherne Bottel, by the Thames at Goring, is not quite what you would expect from the name. It is probably easiest to reach by car, but there is quite a pleasant 20-minute walk from Goring and Streatley station along an ancient footpath just above the river. It is marked as being part of the Ridgeway, but has become rather hemmed in during the past 100 years by high brick walls and fences built by those who own the river frontage. There are still some pretty glimpses of riverside gardens, one of them called Nuns' Acre, and the experience might give you an appetite for lunch.
The restaurant, looking more like a pub, with a lot of shrubs in pots outside and a riverside garden full of white plastic armchairs, is at the bottom of a steep concreted drive, with parking space for cars. The other noticeable feature outside is a kitsch statue of a naked girl in iron, holding a similarly wrought container of flowers - a theme continued indoors, where smaller iron maidens stretch and twist on every table and bar top, and the Gents is decorated with pictures from girlie magazines of sun-tanned lovelies reclining on rocks.
From the Osbert Lancaster cast of pop-eyed old colonels and their frail ladies, I took the lunchtime clientele to be largely retired folk. But then other marginally younger people like myself sneaked in, who should have been at work, and for anyone similarly off the leash at that time of day there are few places I would recommend more highly. You might have your reservations about the white plastic armchairs or the black iron sculptures (not to mention the soft-core erotica in the Gents) but the food is extraordinarily good.
My guest was a long-term heroine who vividly remembers the end of the First World War, and whom I had last met the week before in the thick of a fashionable dance-floor at half past one in the morning. When she arrived I was struggling to understand what I took to be the menu, which offered a 34ft Edwardian Saloon Lunch. This turned out to be "Launch", and was part of a chatty, handwritten little card, decorated with pink ribbon, that offered not only the Lunch Natasha - "Ideal for a business meeting" - but marquees, string quartets and jazz bands, and urged customers to linger, enjoy the hospitality, and order some more wine. "And don't forget: Monday to Friday, pop in for a starter, maybe followed by a starter. But always reserve a table."
This policy was repeated on the main menu, which suggested in its preamble that we should "feel free to pop in for a salad, maybe a bowl of mussels, or simply mushrooms on toast - just meet for a glass of champagne by the river." This, I should explain, is the marketing equivalent of scattering bait to get the fish biting. "We have an excellent supply of caviar," the handwritten introduction concludes. "Just ask." Popping into The Leatherne Bottel is a great deal easier than popping out of it.
What this place provides could not conceivably be described as pub grub. My date asked for "a delicate scallop soup flavoured with Japanese Miso, Wakerne seaweed, galangal, sweet ginger and coconut dumplings". Scallops weren't available, so salmon was offered instead. My friend said she'd rather have it without the salmon, and from the spoonful I tasted it seemed delicious. I asked for "Lambs' brains pan-fried crisp with ground lemon grass and roast sesame seeds, with chargrilled ciabatta, chickweed and lemon thyme jelly".
As my brains arrived, my companion chose to tell me the story of a poor young couple who, when entertaining one of the husband's former school friends, were only able to afford brains. The guest said that he'd rather not eat them, and on being asked why, pointed out that he was a brain surgeon. I was undaunted, and even a brain surgeon would have enjoyed the fried lambs' brains on toast - brown and crisp outside, white and so melting inside that they required very little surgery. The slightly weird-sounding jelly was very good with them.
For her main course, my comedienne friend had a starter-size "roast local suckling pig, off the bone, marinated with lemon leaves, ginger, coriander and lemon thyme, with crisp crackling and red chilli pasta". From the small sample I tasted, it was good and interesting - though the crackling was not crisp like the crackling at The People's Palace, the restaurant I reviewed a few weeks ago. Indeed it was not crisp at all, which was a pity.
I ordered "local duck". It struck me that with this and the roast local suckling pig on the menu, local livestock of any kind might be advised to give The Leatherne Bottel a wide berth. The duck was "braised for two hours on the bone with rosemary and shallots, served with roquette and sorrel leaves and garden herb vinaigrette". I was reminded of the cooking at The Castle at Taunton, another favourite haunt: meat shredded by spending a long time in the oven, falling off the bone but still full of flavour.
Though not much bigger than an ordinary pub, the restaurant is well arranged inside: no table is too close to any other, and even if I hadn't been happily engrossed in memories of John Betjeman and tales of country houses before the war, the most intrusive of voices wouldn't have troubled us. Our sense of privacy may have been imagined, however, and I shall no doubt read a transcript of our conversation in the restaurant column of Rubber News or some other rival publication.
We had until now been working our way through a bottle (glass rather than leatherne) of Macon Lugny at pounds 10, which seemed perfectly all right to me, and my guest had a glass of house red with her local pig at pounds 2.50 a glass. This was also perfectly all right, as were the two glasses of house white we had had before we went into lunch. For pudding, I had a brandy-snap basket of raspberries and she had a slice of apple tart, both of which were exceptionally good. Lunch for two, including the wine but without a tip, came to pounds 65.70.