Restaurants: A night in uberburbia

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The Independent Culture
FOR THOSE of us who smugly divide our time between what we regard as the real town and the real country, there is an unfortunate middle zone which we look on, quite without compromise, as Hell on Earth. I'm not talking about suburbia. We like suburbia. We may joke about its privet hedges, net curtains, and well-polished Ford Probes, but it is unchanging, unthreatening, and above all untempting.

The area we fear and loathe is the bit beyond suburbia - at least beyond London's suburbia, and to the west. It's a crescent-shaped zone up to 20 miles or so outside the western fringe of the M25: part Surrey, part Hampshire, part Berkshire, part Oxfordshire. And very, very scary.

We disparagingly call it the commuter belt, in a vain attempt to pretend it's just more suburbia. But we fail to convince ourselves because, in fact, it's the very opposite; it's uberburbia, the power belt, the place where the people who really run the country (the super-rich, the super- influential, the super-famous, and the agents of all of the above) actually live.

This may seem a touch paranoid, but it is pretty much what I have always believed. Or at least I used to, until last weekend. Having to be in London on Saturday night ruled out the Dorset run, but after spending a gloriously sunny Thursday and Friday cooped up in town, we were desperate to get away. We fancied somewhere we could enjoy a neatly measured dose of rural tranquility until Saturday teatime, before zipping back to town.

The Royal Oak hotel was a tip-off from a friend. I had somehow got it into my head that it was in Wiltshire, a good 20 miles beyond the danger zone. I rang to book a room and reserve a table and, after sorting that out, I asked if Swindon was the nearest station. "Goodness me, no," came the reply. "You want Pangbourne." I shuddered. Pangbourne: the heart of uberburbia.

But it was too late to change the plan. We had agreed to meet some friends there on Saturday morning. Friends who had recently moved to Yattendon. Friends who, it now emerged, were fully paid up uberburbanites. Spooky.

We arrived at the Royal Oak, by train and taxi, after dark - so it wasn't possible to take in the full horrors of the territory. The Royal Oak itself was charming, and although it might be described as "a pub with country house pretensions," the pretensions themselves - in the shape of an impressive wine list, a nicely furnished "drawing room" area to have drinks and coffee in, and a large bedroom with a monster chintzy bed and very civilised en suite bathroom - were all extremely welcome.

We chose to eat in the "brasserie", which was the name co-opted for the cosy and comfy eating area in the pub bit, rather than the posh dining room in the country house bit. The menu is a touch Mediterranean for an English country pub but what mattered more was that my bresaola was not just "home-made", but well-made - nicely spicy, softer towards the middle than the outside, and not too dry. It came with very fresh-tasting "real" mozzarella marinated in truffle oil and balsamic, and baby spinach leaves. I would, though, have liked to see twice as much bresaola - cut twice as thickly.

Marie also felt a bit short-changed by her octopus salad, which was again a shame because what there was, was so very good: tender, with a perfectly judged (not too vinegary) dressing lifted by fresh coriander and parsley and the tiniest touch of chilli.

But any stinting on the starters was at least partly atoned for by the generosity of the main courses. I ordered tuna steak, which is a surprisingly hard thing to get right, but on this occasion my huge slab came beautifully rare, as requested. I eventually decided that the accompanying pesto-smothered potatoes were perhaps not tuna's ideal companion (the Parmesan being the problem), but I quite enjoyed the process of coming to that conclusion. Marie got to work on a braised shank of lamb, which was suitably rich, tender and winey, and game with excellent bashed (half-mashed) potatoes and carrots.

Puddings were an unqualified delight: perfect panacotta, with an irresistible texture between custard and blancmange, was subtly and pleasingly flavoured with coffee, while a chocolate croissant bread-and-butter pudding was every bit as good as it sounded.

As we ate I scrutinised the assembled clientele for tell-tale signs of extreme wealth and power. And I must say, the ability of these uberburbanites to disguise themselves as perfectly normal people is quite staggering. The next morning, which was delightfully sunny, we took a gentle stroll round Yattendon village: a pretty place with endearingly overgrown country lanes and a smashing little church. We met our friends, she an artist, he in the restaurant business, and, try as I might, I couldn't discern any sign whatever of their secret membership of the uberburban cult.

You may think my conspiracy theory falls down at this point. But needless to say I have an uneasy feeling about my Yattendon experience. It reminds me of an old joke:Why do elephants paint their balls red? So they can hide upside-down in cherry trees. Have you ever seen an elephant hiding in a cherry tree? Shows how well it works then!


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Riesling Cuvee Albert 1996, Albert Mann, pounds 24

On the whole, the whites on this list stand out in interest and VFM over the reds. Prices are high but not horrible. I would start almost any meal with a Riesling from Albert Mann

Semillon 1995, Eden Valley, Henschke, pounds 29

A distinguished producer, and a good wine for food. Though capable of lasting many more years, it is ready to drink

Negro Seleccio, Can Feixes 1994, Penedes, pounds 24

A wonderful new-style red from Penedes, and a much more attractive option than most of the reds from the "classic" areas

The Royal Oak

The Square, Yattendon, Berkshire, 01635 201 325 Brasserie: lunch Mon-Sun noon-2pm, dinner Mon-Thurs 7-9.30pm and Fri- Sun 7-10pm. Three-course dinner about pounds 22

Restaurant: lunch Sun noon-2pm, dinner Mon-Sat 7-9.30pm.

Three-course dinner about pounds 32

Credit cards accepted