Bluebells Restaurant & Bar, Shrubbs Hill, London Road, Sunningdale, Berks
Flowers, chocs? Lovely, thanks. But if you really want to treat your mum today...
Delivered the card? Been round with flowers and a box of chocolates? Or have you coaxed your children into taking a wobbling tray of tea and toast in to your missus in bed? No? Well, you are a bad person. It's Mother's Day today.
It's not too late. You could speedily book a table in a nice restaurant and pretend you had it planned all along. I'd be very happy to be taken to Bluebells, a restaurant I've passed many times on the way to visit various relatives. In fact, if everyone in my extended family decided to take their mothers out to lunch today, there's a fair chance we'd all be in Bluebells. It's an easy reach from London and right next door to the lovely parkland of Virginia Water, the perfect place for a Sunday perambulation. But I've never stopped there. There's something about restaurants on A-roads that's a bit unappealing – all that traffic flashing past, going somewhere else.
So today, as a recce for Mother's Day lunch, I and my teenage son Peter pull off the A30 and park. Bluebells is a long, low restaurant with a sweeping drive. It's an elegant exterior, but I'm still surprised by the interior. We're directed to seats in the lobby, which is arranged with leather club chairs and low, chic lampshades in areas divided by soft, semi-opaque curtains – it's stealth wealth all the way. A waitress glides over with drinks, menus and posh nibbles. The dishes on offer on a weekday evening (my only available time to scope out the place) show an intelligent approach to smart food – there's the expected lobster, sea bass and beef Wellington fare; there's also early season asparagus and rhubarb, as well as modish pork pie and Scotch egg (here made with crab and langoustine).
The long dining-room is also partitioned by lengths of fabric, which gives a frisson of intrigue – the idea of being able to earwig on one's dining neighbours (perhaps a celebrity from the nearby Wentworth golf course) while not fully seeing their faces – the sort of pursuit my mother would love. No such glamour at my table; Peter, being grilled about a party escapade, tries to avoid incriminating himself by hunching over his BlackBerry.
When the starters arrive, though, he looks up. That Scotch egg affair has caught his eye. I'm having scallops with sautéed ceps, sweet-pea purée and a Parmesan dressing – both are prettily presented and deftly made, as they should be for £9.25 and £12.95 respectively.
When it comes to mains, the pretty dishes tip towards fussy. My braised belly and pan-roasted tenderloin of Sussex pork has rhubarb chutney and splodges of pale-pink foam dotted around it, which is mildly off-putting. It tastes superb, though – unctuous and flavoursome, topped with curls of crackling (£19.50).
Across the table, I barely have time to register the pastry-wrapped beef with molasses-glazed baby onions, porcini-mushroom purée and confit potatoes before it vanishes. As is the fashion, the balance of meat and veg in both dishes favours the meat (my mother gripes about this on Masterchef). It is, the son acknowledges, y'know, good, although you don't get much bang for your buck: the one slender slice costs £26.50.
It is probably daft to order rhubarb and custard pavé with toasted-almond ice-cream and crisp nougatine. The plate looks a little too much like the pork before it – similar vivid-pink atop a chunky square. There are frills and furbelows around the plate which, again, are extraneous, but the pavé has a firm texture and not-too-sweet bite that I adore, and the nutty ice-cream is a good foil. Peter's pistachio crème brûlée with pink pepper biscuits comes on a long white plate looking for all the world like a pavement after the carnival's gone by. But again, the chef's skill with flavour outdoes his decorative eye.
Our waitress brings a cork for the remainder of the Brouilly Louis Tête 2009, a perky but warming red that seems good value at £28. Our meal is a steep £120, but there's a special Mother's Day lunch today with three courses for £29.50. The menu suggests fewer culinary tricks than our dinner, but the skill of cooking means that generous, thoughtful children (are you listening, Peter?) will make their mothers very happy with a visit to Bluebells.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Bluebells restaurant & bar Shrubbs Hill, London Road, Sunningdale, Berks, tel: 01344 622 722 Lunch and dinner, Tues-Sat; Lunch, Sun. About £120 for two, with drinks
9 Fore Street, Evershot, Dorset, tel: 01935 482 000
This sumptuous Hardy-country manor house has a wonderful setting. Excellent cooking, elegant service, and its wine list is a masterpiece
Dinham Weir, Ludlow, Shropshire, tel: 01584 874 431
Located beautifully by a weir, this restaurant-with-rooms offers outstanding food, thoughtful service and an interesting wine list
Jeremy's at Borde Hill
Balcombe Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, tel 01444 441 102
The food at this cheerful restaurant, best enjoyed on the terrace, offers a good balance between clever technique and allowing quality ingredients to shine
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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