Restaurant: New for old

Hotel Du Vin makes a world of difference in Winchester
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The Independent Culture
An important moment in the initiation of the fledgling restaurant reviewer comes when he or she first buy Caterer and Hotelkeeper. It was not until I had acquired my first copy of this weekly glossy that I realised I had joined something called the "Hospitality Industry". Like all trade magazines, the "Catey" - as I am proud to call it - is plain and pretty undiscriminating. News of the latest development in the themed-restaurant sector might rub shoulders with an alarming report on the levels of bacteria found in rice tested by undercover environmental health inspectors in Norwich.

I like the publication, and intend to keep buying it even if I stop working as a restaurant reviewer. It takes you behind the scenes, like the medical textbooks we used to hunt out at college, full of brutally frank prognoses and neon-lit photographs of gruesome deformities. I gather that there is another journal entirely devoted to Indian restaurants. I must "source it", as we say in the trade.

Having said this, it might not encourage you to know that Hotel Du Vin et Bistro recently won the Caterer's "Newcomer of the Year award". Some of my other sources, however, also liked it. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us, and I fancied a spin through the country. I decided to give it a go.

The Hotel Du Vin is situated in a handsome Queen Anne town house, bang in the centre of Winchester. Proprietors Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset had the (to these shores) novel idea of creating an elegant, comfortable and well-run hotel at a reasonable price. Double rooms start at pounds 75 per night, which rates, when all is taken into account, I think, as a bargain. Like everything else, the dining room is nicely done. With its wooden floors, bare wooden tables, period chairs and white panelled walls, it feels very English, in a wine-bar sort of way. Basset is a wine expert and has quickly built up a large and impressive cellar, of which he or his assistant, Cyril, will happily give you a tour; they are both French, and their holdings reflect this. As well as the full cellar list there is a daily selection of wines - I wanted only a glass, and left it to Cyril. He selected a Pauillac and was eager to engage me in a discussion of its merits. Wine-buffery is projected on to the dining room walls which are covered with old champagne adverts, framed wine-labels and similar detritus.

In keeping with the relaxed feel of the place, the Bistro's menu makes no distinction between courses - Tuscan bread and tomato salad sits alongside roast rack of lamb with baba ganoush. That, of course, is just fine, but there is, as so often these days, a tendency for the dishes themselves to go off in too many directions at once. Combinations like char-grilled smoked salmon with rocket and parmesan salad or warm garlic bread with camembert and cheddar cheese had me trying to reconstruct the plot of Around the World in 80 Days. With all this French wine around, why not a simple plate of chevre, or pate? Why, above all, so much rocket? On the night I ate in the Hotel Du Vin, the trendy leaf featured on seven out of 30 dishes, and was even offered deep-fried with pan-cooked salmon. I like rocket as much as the next rabbit, but this seems excessive. What would it have been 15 years ago? Avocado, sliced, moussed and baked?

I quickly nibbled my way through a good Caesar salad and went for a baked mackerel. I must admit that this was a little provocative on my part. I think mackerel is the best fish in the world when it has just been caught, but it has to be extraordinarily - from the point of view of a restaurant, almost impossibly - fresh. The Bistro scored well: the mackerel was well- cooked, and as fresh as can reasonably be expected. Dessert is often the thing places like this do best, partly because they tend to stick with well-tried, if slightly heavy, favourites. I had an exemplary lemon tart with a beautifully moulded scoop of creme fraiche. The creme brule or bread and butter pudding would, I am sure, have been just as fine. The service, led by the hotel owners, was impeccable.

At the end of my meal, I found myself soliloquising on the following question: had I enjoyed a themed or authentic dining experience? The fact that a "newcomer" should feel so very established, alerted me to the possibility of the former, but my meal was consistently good, and both staff and diners seemed to be enjoying themselves. The Duchess of Devonshire, writing in the Spectator, has forbidden us to say "affordable", when we mean cheap. Who am I to quarrel with her? The Hotel Du Vin is relatively cheap - you could eat a three-course meal with a house wine for pounds 20 a head. My bill came to pounds 29.89.

Hotel Du Vin et Bistro, 14 Southgate Street, Winchester, 01962 841414. All credit cards accepted. Wheelchair access.

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