restaurant: Deesaster, deesaster

The Hoste Arms provided a host of golden blunders
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The Independent Culture
Local informants tell me that The Hoste Arms, a pub-cum-restaurant- cum-hotel, in Burnham Market, Norfolk, is the haunt of the odd comic - Stephen Fry, or was it Harry Enfield? Either one is plausible. It is a funny place.

This may, or may not, be deliberate. Seen from the front, it is your basic olde inn in an olde village. The bar, too, is basic and convivial. The room is dark and busy. One jostles for drinks. Perhaps the atmosphere when we ate was a sort of spontaneous loopiness that erupts on Saturday nights when farmers, local yoof and rich, second home owners all pile in from the fog. In one corner, ratty and rowdy youngsters poured pints down their throats; tweedy types glowered conspicuously at anyone they didn't recognise, and, in a hallway, two inebriated men wearing identical salmon pink tuxedos adjusted each other's matching bow ties.

There are plenty of adjoining rooms. A series of dining rooms connect around the sides and back of this large building. Some are substantial, some less so. We sat in one that was less so, a newly attached conservatory to the rear. Here we were told to go to reception. Standing at what we thought was reception, we were told to move two feet, then we would be a reception. Shown to a table, we were left to watch staff go by.

Traffic is a problem in this conservatory, which is like a motorway from the kitchen to the various dining rooms. One watches waiters whiz by, but rarely towards, you. As if to convert it into a proper room, a rather odd fabric intertwined with gold-leafed stuff, is looped around open rafters. Perhaps this is a remnant from Christmas. When the gentlemen in salmon pink tuxedos sat down and started taking photographs of one another with a flashing Polaroid, we decided to adjourn to the bar, to fortify ourselves with a drink before eating.

If I had known about our waiter, I would have had another drink. I presume he is French, though one of my friends speculated that he is probably called Barry and probably comes from Wells-next-the-Sea. If so, when Monsieur Barry from Wells deigns to serve you, he wants reciprocation. "Deeseeshuns, deeseeshuns," he clucked when we hadn't decided what we wanted quickly enough for his taste. Please note, Monsieur Barry: decisions, decisions are not easy to make here. The menu is rather like a travel brochure, a flavours of the globe job. A customer needs time to figure out just how many national cuisines she wants on one plate.

Decisions, decisions are even more difficult to make when it comes to the wine list. Make that lists. We attempted to order two wines from the first wine list, a photocopied sheet, presented by Monsieur Barry. This left him gasping, then he raced off and reappeared with a second, thickly bound wine list. I found the same wines and attempted to order them again. "No, no," said Monsieur Barry. "We are redoing the wine list. Anything we do not have on both lists we have." When I finally decided, decided on a dolcetto listed on only one of the lists, Monsieur Barry first showed it to my guest, the man in our group, then poured out three samplers. It was rough, cheap and a bad decision, decision.

We ate from the bar food menu, and what food was cooked was ruined in the process. "Soup of the day served with a loaf of bread" was split pea and tasted of old fridge. It came with two loaves of astonishingly spongy bread. "Assiette of Mediterranean charcuterie" may be a curious name for slices of cured sausage that were, largely, Spanish. These were fine. Game terrine was ice-cold, anonymous and served with a red onion pickle that tasted of cheap vinegar.

Main courses were disasters. Worst was the waste of fantastically good fish. A delicious, perfect wing of skate was served on a stir-fry of "oriental" vegetables, which included what tasted like Dutch bell peppers. This glop tasted of nothing so much as grease and burnt soya sauce. Another generous portion of smoked haddock, perfectly cured, perfectly cooked, came on a layer of couscous studded with raisins. This skulked in a viscous base of brown stuff, something called "sauce epice", which tasted of cinnamon. I do not recommend serving beautiful smoked haddock with cinnamon, never mind "sauce epice". Beef, a meat now synonymous with indignity, was ill treated. A cold pat of herb butter was plopped on a tough piece of char- grilled rump steak. The herb was parsley. An accompanying "grilled tomato" was warm, pale, its skin split and tasteless. The new potatoes were a tad early. We did not order puddings.

We retired up to a first floor floodlit "gallery" off the conservatory for coffee. Here we were soon joined by groups of stately local burghers, and a gang of lads, pretty well tanked on Old Speckled Hen. Confronted by bright lights and a mass of tweedy respectability, the lads guffawed nervously at one another. One started blowing into an Aboriginal didgeridoo, propped in a corner. Having paid Monsieur Barry from Wells, we left listening to malformed strains of the outback