What, you may ask, is a classic French auberge doing by the side of the A30, the straightest Roman road in Hampshire, as it stretches from horizon to bleak horizon? Are they expecting passing motorists, en route to Andover or Worcester, to feel like stopping here for lunch? I mean, this is the middle of nowhere.
But they do stop, evidently – enough to have given the Clos du Marquis a reputation as one of the best eateries in the county. This elegant 18th-century farmhouse has been through some crazy times. It started life as a sheep-drovers' hut, a place for ambling shepherds to crash for the night and billet their ovine charges. Then for 200 years it was an inn called the Leckford Hutt, a charming spot for drinkers when the River Test used to chatter by outside. RAF types were billeted here during the war, to fly off to aerial dogfights from the airfield at Chilbolton. It was converted to a restaurant 10 years ago and renovated by its present owner, Germain Marquis, in 2004. M. Marquis is the image of the Parisien chef-patron, with his immaculate manners, his Jacques Chirac looks and stained whites. Snaps of his starry clientele hang on the wall: they include, a little mystifyingly, George Bush senior, who was here last summer.
Inside, the Clos is charming: a long, welcoming living room with a gleaming bar and roaring log fire. The dining room is chilly, with a low ceiling and dirty-cream wash on the walls, but grows on you, especially when the family dog sits on your feet. The waiter, however, did not grow on me. A handsome chap in a pink waistcoat, he talked us through the menu as though addressing a class of pre-school infants, joshingly informed the ladies present that the Ladies was out of order (only kidding!) and did a lot of squeezing shoulders without being expressly invited. I'm sure he meant well, but really ...
The menu is a lovely surprise: not for its snoringly old-fashioned litany of italicised French standards (rognons d'agneau à la diable, filet de poisson du jour), but the fact that the Tuesday-to-Sunday lunch menu is a dazzling £16.95 for two courses. I was part of a 12-strong Christmas lunch of in-laws, and between us we tried everything. First impressions weren't great – a bonne-bouche of monkfish vol-au-vents was chilly and unappealing and the home-made bread smelt of Play-Doh – but my mother-in-law's kidneys (so to speak) were heftily spiced with Tabasco and tangily delicious. My cassolette de fruits de mer, sauce vin blanc came in a dish scarcely bigger than a ramekin and while the scallops, prawns and mussels tasted blissfully happy in their wine'n'leek sauce, I wished there were more of them. The venison terrine was coarse and earthy and crumbly to the point of being barely spreadable on toast – and its strong gamey flavour was sweetened by a dab of chutney.
It was all perfectly tasty, if neither inspired nor especially filling – le vrai French provincial cooking, only with smaller portions than you'd find in Lille or Périgord. Main courses showed more evidence of loving care. My haunch of venison was as black as an undertaker's pocket – boned, rolled and slow-cooked for six hours, it was tender to the point of disintegration (but in a good way) and its heaviness was lifted by a sauce of cranberries and cracked pepper. The volaille du jour was breast of pheasant with Toulouse sausage and Savoy cabbage, and while the bird and the greens harmonised well, the addition of French salami slices was merely distracting. My son's lapin roti was yummy, but came drenched in a gloopy mustard sauce that appeared to separate before my eyes. The in-laws, I should point out, praised all these dishes loudly and cursed me for a pretentious Londoner in finding fault with local rabbit, pheasant or roe deer.
Puddings displayed M. Marquis's puckish sense of humour. For no discernible reason, he offers them in threesomes. A plate of chocolate mousse, chocolate ice cream and "warm chocolate dessert with a 'warm and soft heart'" bathed lunchers to the back teeth in rich cocoa liquids. Frangipani cream featured in a pastry, on chestnut cake and hazelnut ice cream. Star of the show was the oddly titled "les trois crèmes du college de trinity" that arrived from the kitchen dramatically covered in flames. Never in a history of eating crème brûlée have I ever been served one actually brulée-ing in front of me. The three creams were coffee-, hazelnut- and vanilla-flavoured, all of them riotously successful.
Sluiced by bottles of the excellent house Sauvignon and Merlot, at £17 a bottle, this was a meal with lots of character: a rather aggressive, my-way-or-le-highway character, sometimes painstaking, sometimes slapdash, but always interesting. M. Marquis brings authentic Gallic flavours to the south counties; and if it's the Frenchiness of Escoffier rather than LA's French Laundry, that's no bad thing.
Clos du Marquis, Leckford Hutt, London Road, Stockbridge, Hampshire (01264 810738)
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