To the Lighthouse (twice)

THE LIGHTHOUSE 77 High Street, Aldeburgh, Suffolk IP15 5AU. Tel: 01728 453377 Open daily 12-3pm and from 7-10.30pm. Lunch around pounds 20 per person. Three course set dinner, pounds 15.75. Credit cards except Diners and American Express accepted
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The Independent Culture
ALDEBURGH, on the Suffolk coast, must surely be one of the nicest places left on Earth. Apart from being, famously, the haunt of the coot and the late Benjamin Britten, it is well known as a haven for watercolourists. Pastel-pink and yellow houses stand in the sunlight behind the seafront walk and the shingle beach, begging to be painted.

Every fisherman leaning against his boat waiting to sell fresh fish, every little old lady in a print dress squinting into the sun looks as though they have been put there by some nut in a straw hat and told not to move while he rushes back to his easel to swab up a brushful of prussian blue and start dabbing in the shadows. One favourite subject is a little white tower with an external iron staircase which Laurens van der Post used as a writing-room.

The Lighthouse, the restaurant I visited in the main street, is similarly rich in light, air and artistic associations, floored with pale tiles and much favoured by musicologists. It had to put up with rather more critical scrutiny than most of the other places I have written about on account of a bizarre coincidence.

Having been invited to take part in a radio music quiz in the Jubilee Hall at 11 o'clock in the morning, I booked a table for the evening, meaning to have dinner there with one of our greatest living food writers who was taking us to a concert at the fabled Peter Pears-haunted Maltings. As it turned out, the radio quiz had booked us all into the same restaurant for lunch, so that day I got to know the Lighthouse fairly well.

Lunch, I think, should probably be passed over fairly briefly. We were given an upper room to ourselves, and the cast of musicologists, actors, writers, composers, instrumentalists, producers and radio technicians all bellowed away - the usual mixture of theatrical anecdote, irrational guffaws and cruel gossip about absent friends - and we all had a very good time. The sun shone brightly in through a high window with a flag outside, making the long table look like one of those Impressionist pictures of lunch parties on the banks of the Seine. Those Parisians presumably bellowed away just as loudly as we did, though you can't hear the din in the paintings.

In our case the proprietor, Peter Hill, did his best to keep order by asking for a show of hands of who wanted what from the lunch menu, and the radio provided a great quantity of red, white and pink wine. The food was very good; a plate of pan-fried chicken on pasta with mushrooms, asparagus and tarragon remains vivid in the memory, as did some delicious home-made strawberry ice-cream.

Our visit in the evening was more decorous. Having identified me as the actor John Bluthal and treating me with new respect as a result, the proprietor found us a quiet table for four downstairs, lit a candle in a wax-encrusted bottle, and excused himself with the words: "Back in a moment, I have to squeeze some juices."

Sara Fox, who does the cooking, offers five or six starters and the same number of main courses. Specials appear on a separate hand-written menu, marked either "S" or "M", and occasionally "S/M." This, without spoiling the proprietor's joke, allows him a range of amusing double entendres before he explains they mean "starter" or "main."

My wife started with the potted shrimps from the Norfolk Coast, my hero the food writer plumped for a warm salad of pancetta, capers, anchovies and egg, his enchanting wife had something vegetarian which included roasted peppers, while I decided on the Lighthouse fish soup with croutons.

I don't think I have ever settled down to a meal I was going to have to write about with a greater sense of relief. We knew already that it was a very good restaurant, my wife was therefore unlikely to embarrass me by shouting "Eugh!" or "Please!" when the food arrived, and being in the company of such a discerning gastronome I would clearly be spared having to think of any adjectives about the vegetables. We ate our starters, chuckling away in a sophisticated manner, ranging from philosophy to economics (how much Ian Hislop gets paid for being on Have I Got News For You?).

There was a brief moment of unpleasantness when I caught my wife picking wax off the bottle the candle was stuck in. I was half way through explaining what a disgusting habit this was when I noticed that our lovely guest was picking the wax from the other side and had to shut up. Then I took out my notebook and asked them all for their considered opinions. All of them grinned, and said: "Very nice."

After that I stopped noticing, really. Our choice of main course displayed a pleasing symmetry: I had the griddled cod fillet on celeriac mash with a herb butter that my wife had ordered for lunch and raved about, while she had the chicken on pasta that I had ordered for lunch and been similarly enthusiastic about. Both were incredibly delicious.

I think our guests had a roast lamb rump on ratatouille with olives, and a duck confit, but as they again beamed "Very nice," a second bottle of 1993 Domaine du Frasse St Chinan was practically empty, and I seemed to have been eating and drinking all day, so I'm not sure that my opinion of what they ate is of any great value. I was certainly very pleased when the candle fell into the bottle with a sudden pop, alarming both the wax- pickers.

I do remember very clearly that both the raspberry and fig tart with creme fraiche and the nut and toffee tart with ice cream vanished in seconds under the chopping of four forks. Other than that, I can only say that it was a wonderfully happy evening.

After I had paid for my helpful friends out of my tiny radio fee, the bill for two of us without the tip came to pounds 42.32. !