A lorra lorra laughs

Tracey MacLeod goes on a blind date with Paul Butler, the highest bidder in the 'The Independent' Hope for Africa auction, and enjoys the local wares of the magnificent Plas Bodegroes in Wales

Was it my imagination, or did Paul Butler's face fall when I burst into the bar of Plas Bodegroes, still steaming from a seven-hour car journey and smelling slightly of baby sick? "Do you want to go up and change?" he suggested gallantly. "You've only just arrived." Well, not quite; I already had changed, and this was as good as it got.

As the reader who generously bid £520 to join me for "lunch at a new eatery" in The Independent's charity auction last Christmas, Paul was entitled to expect something a little bit special, and my best cardigan just wasn't up to the job. The venue, on the other hand, was as special as they come; Plas Bodegroes holds a Michelin star, and is currently the Good Food Guide's Wales Restaurant of the Year.

A handsome Georgian manor house with a wisteria-heavy veranda, it also prides itself on being "one of Britain's most romantic hideaways". Something I hadn't realised when I suggested it to Paul, who lives an hour or so away. Nor did I know that lunch is only served on Sundays. Which is how "lunch at a new eatery" turned into dinner and an overnight stay, thereby confirming my mother's worst fears; I'm spending the night in a hotel with a man who's paying for my company.

Sipping our aperitifs in a honeysuckle-scented bower, surrounded by heart-shaped flowerbeds, Paul and I attempted to make non-romantic conversation. Harder to ignore were the regular background appearances of a naked toddler, with a disgruntled man who was trying to scrub sick off a child car seat.

Paul, as you'd expect of an Independent reader, proved to be an intriguing chap, who'd given up a high-flying London career to read Ocean Science at Bangor University. As we chatted, it was clear he had more hinterland than Russia. In fact the only thing he didn't seem particularly interested in was restaurants, yelping, "Oh God! You don't want me to talk about the food, do you?" when he learned he'd be taking part in the review process.

Plas Bodegroes calls itself a "restaurant with rooms" rather than a hotel, and the lounge area and bar are decidedly snug. But the dining room is airy and, with its pale wooden floor and duck-egg blue walls, coolly Scandinavian.

Paul made a valiant attempt to get into the critical spirit, offering "It's a nice ambience, isn't it? Plenty of room for the tables." But his heart obviously wasn't in it, and he looked appalled when I launched into a diatribe about the artwork, (a smorgasbord of hideous paintings and sinister knick-knacks), rather than just relaxing and enjoying a nice dinner.

Chris Chown's menu boasts more local produce than Royston Vasey's village shop, and several classic dishes are given a Welsh twist. Our appetisers, for example, salmon in puff pastry with a dill and mustard sauce, also contained laverbread. Now you'd think that between an oceanographer and a restaurant critic, one of us would have known that laverbread was a Welsh seaweed. But no; we were both picking around our plates in a futile search for bread.

Warming up to his critical duties, Paul declared his pan-fried pigeon breast "gammony", and followed through with a "very nice" to cover the accompanying bubble and squeak. Carmarthen ham, rather than the customary Parma, was wrapped around the monkfish in my well-constructed warm salad. I felt obliged to apologise for ordering an endangered species in front of an ocean scientist. "Well really, you shouldn't be eating fish at all," Paul replied. "The seas are being hoovered clean by factory fishing, and even the supposedly safe species won't be safe for long." It was a rousing call-to-arms, which would have played a lot better if Paul hadn't ordered turbot for his main course.

Still, this particular turbot was well past the endangered stage, and as Paul pointed out, at least it was giving energy to someone who was trying to save its relatives. By now we were on food-sharing terms, so I can report that searing had brought out the fish's natural smokiness, and that the accompanying mashed potato was laced with salt cod. My main course confidently framed a local speciality - roast loin of mountain lamb - in a Middle Eastern setting, the meat wonderfully cumin-scented and served with a tower of minted couscous and chargrilled courgettes and aubergines.

It was unfortunate that the lights had just been romantically lowered when Harry, my regular companion and car seat valet, emerged from his bedroom exile. He found Paul and I well into our second bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, and bickering like an old married couple.

Nor did it help that Paul's dessert, two cinnamon biscuits filled with apple and rhubarb, was fashioned into the shape of a heart. "They should have shaped Harry's into a gooseberry!" I cackled, as an atmosphere of mild hysteria took hold.

After our earlier roadside experience, I rejected the lemon posset in favour of a date and Armagnac parfait, which was, as billed, perfect, a subtle end to a quietly impressive meal. The small staff, led by Chris Chown's wife Gunna, kept the room bubbling along, and seemed completely unfazed by the fact that the man I'd arrived with had been banished to his room for dinner.

Over coffee in the lounge, we got chatting to a retired BBC spin doctor, who supplied the kind of metropolitan chat that Paul might have been hoping for, if not quite achieving the heights reached by my Independent colleague, John Walsh, who introduced his reader to Hillary Clinton.

He's a reserved kind of chap, but I think Paul enjoyed his blind date. He certainly appreciated Plas Bodegroes, though as he pointed out, "it would have been difficult for me to come all the way down here, pay as much as I have, and then discover it was really terrible". It was certainly one of my most enjoyable engagements as a reviewer, if slightly surreal. And I learned more about the dynamics of water movement off the Canary Isles and its effect on phytoplankton than I normally do over supper. Best of all, The Independent's Hope for Africa appeal received a handsome donation. So thank you, Paul.

Plas Bodegroes, Pwllheli, Gwynedd, North Wales (01758 612363), www.bodegroes.co.uk

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