Food & Drink: So what's your poison?: Emily Green samples Toxique chic at a converted Wiltshire farmhouse, then has a sweet and sour time in Devon
Saturday 26 June 1993
Name aside, Toxique is an entirely agreeable place, a converted farmhouse with a slightly dotty French charm. Feathery trees at the front of a large, cool garden have had a gentle topiary job done on them. Roses climb. Cows moo in a field out back. This rustic grace has a poignant sense of fragility about it, given the presence out front of electricity pylons marching across the horizon, and a dull suburb encroaching nearby.
The arrangement inside the house is decorating-magazine bohemian: walls in the lounge are black, couches and armchairs are low. Pine cones are placed artfully about. In the two dining rooms white plastic garden chairs are cleverly draped with fabric. It emerges that the design flourishes are no accident: Peter Jewkes, one of the two owners (a couple), is an architect who got out of London when the construction industry ground to a near halt.
Small-town life appears to suit Mr Jewkes. Hospitality could not be more laid back. Those who have booked a room and arrive late afternoon will probably find him in the kitchen. He offers a choice of handsome, spare rooms in cool white. Other than bathtubs the size of small swimming pools and large, firm beds, these rooms ignore the 20th century. There is no phone, no television. Just a hint of dinner from downstairs as the other owner, Helen Bartlett, fries onions.
The low-key hospitality clearly appeals to Melksham and nearby towns. Toxique's dining room was hopping last Thursday night. Guests travelled from Bristol and Bath to eat there. They were given an easy, gracious reception, candlelight, three courses for pounds 22.50, a decent choice of wine and good cafetiere coffee.
The food evinces care. Good bread rolls are kitchen-made. When it comes to cooking proper, it remains pleasing, if a bit busy. Every dish sampled was perfectly good, but could have done without at least one ingredient. A carrot, tomato and pepper soup with basil- and tarragon-laden croutons was rich, had a hot kick and an almost overpowering sweetness. Moist monkfish kebabs came in a pool of beurre blanc with a rich black bean sauce and spiced with tarragon and lime. It needed less seasoning and more texture. Lamb was coated in nuts and given a sweet glaze, and served with baby carrots. This again needed relief: something clean and simple.
Mr Jewkes and Ms Bartlett set up Toxique as a relaxed alternative to stuffy country house hotels. Perhaps they should have called it Antidote.
LIKE the owners of Toxique, Stephen Edds and Jane Gibbs are newcomers to catering. He left a career as a teacher to run a restaurant. Last November, they opened Temple Winds, several blocks from the seafront in Exmouth, Devon.
There was not much they could do last week when the council decided to drain a fountain out front during lunch hour, its pump droning with dull intensity. (Apparently some joker had put green food-colouring in it.)
There are, however, tricks of the trade that come with experience. These include offering not just white but also red wine by the glass and giving diners the choice of going straight to table in a pretty, white-washed dining room instead of directing them to an empty, airless lounge upstairs to order. Add to the list not congratulating single diners for being single diners. And most certainly not peeping around doorframes at them as they eat in an otherwise empty room.
The cooking is a good news, bad news story. Bad news first: the savoury courses. Bread, strangely shaped from baking in a seedling pot, was ropey and raw in the centre. Amuse-gueules, including carved-out cherry tomatoes stuffed with some sort of bland whizz, were dinky and tasteless. A salad of crispy duck had nice lettuces in perfect condition, tough stringy meat and a bland hazelnut dressing. Chargrilled tuna, served with a sweetish tomato sauce and glazed spring onions, was seriously overcooked. Vegetables to the side included good grilled courgettes, 'tempura' green beans (battered and deep-fried) and overdone carrots.
Mr Edds says he has no interest in any food 'east of Italy' (meaning Oriental) and boasts he does not cook with lemongrass. This is a peculiar point of pride, and should preclude the bean tempura and (listed but unsampled) sea bass with 'classic sweet-and-sour sauce'.
Good news comes in the form of dessert. Mr Edds appears to be an excellent pastry chef. His lemon curd ice-cream with a bramble sauce and shortbread was first class: generous, pretty and fresh. Petits-fours, including excellent fudge and snow- white meringues, were ace. Prices are fair: a three-course lunch is pounds 13, two courses pounds 9.
Toxique, 187 Woodrow Road, Melksham, Wiltshire (0225-702129). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Dinner, bed and breakfast pounds 64 single, pounds 108 double. Open dinner Tue-Sat, lunch Sun. Access, Visa.
Temple Winds, The Beacon, Exmouth, Devon (0395-222201). Children welcome. Open lunch and dinner Tue-Sat, Sun lunch. Access, Visa, Switch.
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