Allium is the umbrella name for a genus of plants and vegetables that include onions, shallots, leeks, scallions and garlic. It's an excellent name for a restaurant, suggesting pungency, variety and honest-to-God, vegetable-garden produce. It's a one-word harvest festival. And the restaurant – which appears in the current Good Food Guide 2009, voted Readers' Restaurant of the Year for south-west England – has a growing reputation for cosy-Cotswoldy comfort and gutsy flavours. It seems just the place when you're driving through Gloucestershire on a rainy Sunday.
Our spirits did not lift, however, on taking our seats in the hushed dining-room. There was a view of an empty bar through a doorway, and, looking round, you could take in cream walls with cream lights, brown carpet, exposed brickwork (so 1980s), unlaid tables, an abandoned (cheese?) trolley. Out-of-season narcissi on the table gave off an unwelcome pong, while some huge gladioli in vases in the window shared the water with ornamental cabbages. There's a fine view of Fairford High Street, but the atmosphere on our visit was oddly antiseptic. Everything felt unloved and neglected; we might easily have been plunged into Sunday-afternoon Weltschmerz had we not been able to hear every word the family at the next table were saying. Most diverting it was, too (thanks, Mike, Sadie and Tom).
The sweet, anxious serving girls, kitted out in shapeless brown uniforms to match the chairs and the carpet, offered home-made bread which was perfectly OK, and whipped-with-cream butter, which decidedly wasn't. A bonne bouche of salmon rillette with tarragon sauce was utterly pedestrian, as if delivered moments before by Ocado. The starters showed more clearly what the owners, James and Erica Graham, were capable of.
From a brief menu (four starters, four mains) we ordered a trio of hare for me and crayfish with sweetcorn and coconut for my date. Her crayfish was visually very striking: in a old-fashioned cocktail glass, some scrambled-eggy gloop lay on a brown Guinness-like soup where an orange froth hovered over lumps of crayfish. By the time I registered that the gloop was boiled-until-mushy sweetcorn with cream, the brown stuff was crayfish consommé en gelée, the fish was tasteless and the froth or spume was horribly sweet coconut, it was too late. It was the most revolting thing I've put in my mouth for ages, and I'd swallowed a whole spoonful.
My trio of hare was a terrine, a consommé and a rabbity loin. The terrine was insufficiently moist but nicely gamey, and I'd have enjoyed it more had I not been given rillettes as a taster. The consommé was slightly sweetened and had an off-putting aftertaste, almost as bad as the mid-taste of the fish-corn cocktail. The waitress noticed my hideous grimace. "The crayfish is an unusual taste, isn't it?" she said, beaming encouragement.
We waited with fascination to see what came next. How can you mess up a plate of roast pork with apple sauce and crackling? Quite easily. The pork came dry and flat, wrinkled and chewy, as though it had been left under a UVA sun lamp for half an hour. The accompanying jus was too sweet, and the apple sauce a horribly sludgy grey. The carrots tasted as though they'd been tinned, circa 1968, and only recently opened. They left an odd residue of synthetic or chemical orange on the side of my plate.
Resolving to banish all negative thoughts, my companion plunged enthusiastically into the fillet of cod with lentils and purple sprouting broccoli. "The fish itself is perfectly fresh and clean-tasting," she said, "It's quite flaky, erring on the side of underdone, but I don't mind that. The problem is the lentils, which are weirdly flavoured as if they've been cooked with soy sauce."
What in God's name had gone on in the kitchen that morning? As we toyed, dispiritedly, with the tasteless pistachio ice cream and the (perfectly OK) chocolate fondant pudding, we fervently hoped the staff had had such a fantastic Saturday night, they'd struggled to get in to work at all. Perhaps things would have been better if Erica Graham, the co-owner with a reputation as a front-of-house Queen of the Revels, had been around. But nothing could forgive the crayfish cocktail, the heat-wrinkled pork, the chemical carrots, the soy lentils ... It may be time for the Jameses to give their kitchen operation a boot up the fundament, and to swap the cream-brown palette of the dining room for a touch of the Nickly Haslams.
On their menu, there's a saying from an eminent (but unknown to me) French restaurateur: "Good food is small things correctly done." Not quite. Good food is fine ingredients shown some respect, cooked with care, and served without spume, sugar or superfluous sauces. As one of the Golden Rules of Life, it's not much. But it'll do.
Allium, 1 London Road, Market Place, Fairford, Gloucestershire (01285 712200)
About £70 for two with wine
"No service charge. Cash tips only; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Cotswold cream
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