Portions out of control

THE CROWN 90 High Street, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6DP. Tel: 01502 722275. Open daily 12.30 to 1.30 and 7.30 to 9.30. Two-course menu, lunch pounds 12.95, dinner pounds 17.95. Three-course menu, lunch pounds 15.50, dinne r pounds 19.95. Credit cards accepted
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SOUTHWOLD is a name soaked in poetry, like Brecht's Surabaya or Grantchester before the Archers moved there. It evokes a lost world of enchantment on the Suffolk coast where time stands still. In real life Southwold is a little more wacky. Victorian buildings that could be inhabited by the Addams Family rear up in dark brick from delicate little rows of painted cottages, beach-huts line the shore, retired persons of clearly artistic bent sway past in the wind, but it is nonetheless highly romantic, particularly from afar, seen from beyond the marshy meadows.

Culinary competition in the town rages between the Swan, a hotel of elegant eighteenth-century proportions in the marketplace, and the Crown, further up the High Street. Both are owned by Adnams, once merely Southwold's brewers, now award-draped wine merchants. According to the lady I had my first course with at the Crown, portions are larger at the Swan - she described a huge weight of fish practically hanging over the sides of her plate - but the Crown is generally agreed to carry it off on quality.

The circumstances under which I had my first course next to the lady in question were perhaps unusual for a restaurant reviewer. My oldest friend had decided to hang up his mortarboard and exchange it for the floppy beret of the watercolourist, and was throwing a retirement dinner. Those who knew the Crown talked about it with such enthusiasm that I thought I could risk assessing it on the evidence of dinner for 20. Especially as my friend was paying, rather, dear reader, than the Independent on Sunday Review.

We were given a choice of two dishes from each course of the main restaurant menu, our orders taken soon after we arrived by Karen, a kind and jolly waitress, while an elegant blonde beauty, Alison, managed the prearranged drinks. Dinner was in a terracotta painted front room, with green and grey marbled false pillars. While we drank our Adnam's Fizz, a sparkling white Chardonnay - visitors to the bar can taste a huge constantly changing selection of wine-by-the-glass provided by Simon Loftus as part of their successful marketing campaign - we were offered big plates of sliced peppers, carrots and dips, very good game terrine on squares of pumpernickel, hot pitta bread with tomatoes and fresh basil, and generous helpings of smoked salmon.

People eating in the restaurant had a choice of four starters, including a warm salad of char grilled pigeon breast with toasted almonds, croutons and mustard dressing, and grilled mackerel fillet with honey and lime and corn salad. For simplicity's sake we were restricted to the other two, which was smoked salmon with Scotch salmon hash and sour cream, or a layered stack of char grilled aubergine with goat's cheese and peppers and plum chutney. Having already rather overdone it on the mounds of smoked salmon provided as an appetiser - God knows how much they give you at the Swan - I chose the aubergine and goat's cheese.

We then sat down at a lot of little tables with our first set of companions. Most of us being strangers to each other though familiar to our host, we yammered away at a great rate, covering topics that swung from church wall-paintings to the amount of food they gave you at the Swan, and apart from the wholly virtuous woman on my right who drank only water, drank glass after glass of a very good vin de pays du Gers, a Jean des Vignes Sec. This was partly out of nerves and partly because Alison refilled our glasses so promptly and discreetly we barely noticed what we were doing. Everybody else on my table had the smoked salmon, and, asked for a considered opinion, said it was fantastic. My aubergine was interesting and squishy, the toasted cheese ditto, but of an entirely different texture.

For the main course we had a choice between crispy-skinned Suffolk duck breast with shredded Chinese greens and sweet carrot and ginger sauce, or pan-fried darnes of monkfish with wilted spinach, roasted garlic and bacon. In the restaurant they could also toy with the idea of wing of skate, fillet of cod, or rack of lamb. I chose the duck, and Alison began distributing some really excellent Australian St Hallet Old Block Shiraz. The fish-eaters made a few jokes about "darnes" and "wilted spinach" - jokes were rather de rigueur by this time - but warbled in praise of the cooking. My duck was absolutely fine, and I particularly enjoyed the okra in a cream and white-wine sauce and other fresh vegetables that came with it, but for the first time I can remember there was too much for me to eat. Had it not been so pink and duck-like and tender it might have been cut from an ostrich.

At this point the men had to get up, reverse their place cards, and move to other tables. Conversationally, this was a bit of a standing start, but we managed it, and were hazily aware of Alison moving in with a Casa Diva from the Bodegas Gutierrez de Vega in Alicante. The choice for pudding was between grilled lemon and lime tart and cheese, but I have a feeling we had both. I was entirely satisfied but again those in the restaurant were more spoiled. They could also have bread and butter pudding with creme anglaise, dark and white chocolate with creme fraiche and berries, or carrot and nutmeg flan with butter-cream and raspberry coulis. There was also coffee and a lavish plate of petits fours.

It would seem ungracious to tot up what it must have cost my old friend, but if we had been eating in the Crown's restaurant it would have been pounds 19.95 a head for the three courses, with the wine between pounds 7.50 and pounds 15 a bottle. I left with my ears cocked for the sound of guests exploding up the road at the Swan. !