There is a charming photograph of 36 on the Quay when it was the Anchor Inn a century ago. It shows a thick-set ruffian with the moustache of a villain in a Chaplin movie. Hands tucked into his waistband, legs apart, he's looking at the camera as though accusing it of spilling his pint. Around him are half a dozen cronies, glaring at the intruding lens. They wouldn't have made the Anchor feel a very welcome place to pop into for a refreshing sherbet.
Not any more. It's a more glamorous proposition today. The setting, overlooking the sea at Emsworth, is lovely. If the tide's out, you can park on the shingle and gaze at the lovely 17th-century cottages.
Inside, the dining room is small, low-ceilinged, crowded and cosy. The décor is mostly neutral beige, offset by the bright pinks, greens and reds in the evening wear of the sailing fraternity. Emsworth is home to one of the three sailing clubs in the area (along with Itchenor and Bosham) and it shows. The clientele in here is rich, comfortable and local. This restaurant is their second home. The chap at the next table has kicked off his Gucci loafers and is eating supper in his socks, as he'd do by his fireside. Opposite him, the lady in the cashmere sweater is telling friends, "It was just too cold for a second coat of varnish." It takes a moment to realise she's talking about her boat rather than her toenails.
Ramon and Karen Farthing have run this place for over 10 years and picked up a Michelin star along the way. Karen marshals a small army of smiling local girls, who deliver your amuse bouche of Jerusalem artichoke soup (scorching hot and a little too oily) with a flourish. He and his team offer a small but intriguing menu – four starters, four mains – of dishes that suggest a chef of phenomenal gifts but a perverse sense of scale.
My starter of pigeon breasts on a braised onion and pinenut compote was arranged in arrowhead formulation, with black pudding in the middle and cubes of steamed beetroot sitting in a light game reduction. Game poultry and black pudding together make quite an assault on the tastebuds – like being set upon by two of the aforementioned sailors simultaneously. Each was delicious, and perfectly cooked, but didn't work as a duet. Likewise, the sweetness of the compote had a fight on its hands with some warm plum chutney: I wished there had been fewer tastes to confuse the palate. And it was an enormous starter. After it, I felt like I'd eaten three courses and the cheese board. Angie's scallops arrived on a vegetable caponata with roasted red peppers, and were covered with parmesan crisps, resembling three miniature cheeseburgers. The scallops were, Angie said, "heavily seared, rich and densely flavoured, but really overwhelmed by the parmesan". Both dishes showed, I thought, a chef who didn't trust his own judgement about when to stop piling flavours on.
The mains showed the same tendency towards random excess. My loin of venison with (deep breath) a timbale of braised red cabbage, glazed fondant potato, fricassee of caramelised swede and baby onions, noisettes of apples and a cassis game sauce was a huge plateful of 20-odd items, similar in size and colour. It was like inspecting a box of chocolates without the explanatory lid. The venison medallions were juicy and beautifully cooked, but the red cabbage had been ill-advisedly braised in honey and the "noisettes" of apple resembled three sorbets added as an afterthought. Would it have been too boring to braise the cabbage with apples? Angie's seabass was accessorised with crisp lime potato slices, a light tomato mousse, courgette ribbons and tender spinach leaves on a roasted shallot cream. It wasn't a wild success. The tomato mousse was a tasteless gloop. The seabass has a slithery, oily quality that suggested a dubious kinship with mackerel. "And the whole thing's too complicated," said Angie. "A nice piece of fish has been turned into Sunday lunch with all the trimmings. And who ever serves gravy – sorry, shallot cream – with fish anyway?"
Stuffed to the gills, we ordered a single helping of the restaurant's Speciality Dessert: "Five miniature British classics". They were: eggy custard tart (fine), rice pudding (undercooked), trifle (yummy), steamed ginger pudding (light and lovely) and hot apple crumble (fabulous). A delightful doll's-house selection, which left you tantalised – I'd happily have tackled a proper-sized plate of the trifle or crumble, but they didn't do grown-up portions of any of the five. Honestly. After the Brobdingnagian starters, and the plate-crammed mains, here were the Lilliputian puds. The kitchen at 36 gets so much of the actual cooking right, it's a shame to carp about the profusion of extras; but Mr Farthing might consider curbing his natural generosity, and trying the less-is-more approach.
36 on the Quay, 47 South Street, Emsworth, Hampshire (01243 375592)
About £130 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Quay factors
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