Every year, the Michelin Guide seems to get a little sillier. Its continued adherence to the view that the only cooking that really counts is French means that it increasingly misses out on what Britain does best. And its refusal to offer any details on the style or atmosphere of the restaurants it lists renders it almost useless as a practical guide.
One innovation in the guide this year is in the "red meals". Entries in red now denote "good food at moderate prices", whereas they used to indicate standard of cooking alone. The merits of this change are obvious enough: it is right and proper that restaurants offering value for money should be distinguished from the rest. The disadvantages, however, should have been plain to see. Under the old system, very good restaurants which, because they did not serve the sort of hoity cuisine favoured by the Michelin men, didn't receive a star, at least merited a red meal. Now, however, the more expensive of these have lost even this distinction. Thus both Simon Hopkinson's Bibendum and Alistair Little's eponymous place have gone from red to black, as have Rick Stein's Seafood restaurant in Padstow, and the Ivy and the Caprice in London; nothing now singles out these excellent restaurants from inferior rivals in the same class of "comfort".
But it is good to report that one restaurant which has justly retained its "red meal" marking, and makes the leap from plain "good", to "good value" is the Hole in the Wall in Bath. Lunch-time first courses start at pounds 3.50, mains, pounds 5.50, which, considering the quality of the cooking, is extremely good value indeed.
Back in the Sixties, under George Perry-Smith, the Hole in the Wall had a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the country, serving up a punchy blend of French and English cooking. I gather it went through a rather rough time after Perry-Smith's retirement in the 1970s, until Christopher and Cunna Chown took over three years ago and set the place firmly back on its feet.
Elegant, English and unpretentious, it is one of those restaurants that seems secure in its identity - it does not aim as high as it might, knows its own limits and, as a result, hardly ever puts a foot wrong.
The style is vaguely Sixties: casual, with white walls, Hessian carpet, white tablecloths, bare beams and plaid banquettes. On the Saturday lunch- time we were there, the place was only half-full, but with an affluent local crowd clearly enjoying themselves.
Apart from the Hole in the Wall, the Chowns own Plas Bodegroes on the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales, a stylish country hotel with an outstanding cellar. The Bath wine list is also strong, in both new and old world wines, 20 of which are offered by the glass. The cooking is the responsibility of a new chef, Eric Lepine, who arrived from the nearby Lucknam Park Hotel. All the evidence suggests he is more than up to the job. The menu is simple and well balanced, with a slight bias towards game, and our meal was lovingly done, not just in parts, but throughout.
I began with a warm game salad of quail and venison, which came with a juniper berry dressing; the quails legs, its main ingredient, were moist and buttery, the venison rich and dense. My companion's blinis were just as good - the pancake was large and airy and also unsalted, which worked well to offset the caviar and smoked salmon that came with it. I will admit the partridge, in a dish of stuffed roast partridge with lentils and braised shallot, was a tad tough, although that could have been nature's fault rather than the kitchen's. My red mullet, on the other hand, was an unmitigated triumph. The fish had been filleted and fried with rosemary and thyme in an olive oil which had in turn been infused with lime leaves, ginger, lemon-grass, and garlic. Only the sauteed mixed vegetables that came with the dish - French beans, turnip, mushrooms and broccoli florets - seemed bland, not to say naff.
For desserts, we chose ice-cream - mango for her, coffee for me. These were fine examples of the genre, and prettily presented, cradled in a thin biscuit and bathed in a raspberry coulis.
Our bill came to pounds 70 with service, but we had consumed a good bottle of Brouilly and eaten with abandon. I'll be urging the merits of a day in Bath with lunch in the Hole in the Wall on visiting foreigners or family, in the hope they'll invite me along
The Hole in the Wall, 16 George Street, Bath, BAl 2EH, (01223 425242). All major credit cards accepted. Open lunch and dinner Mon-SatReuse content