There is among the English aristocracy a common species of buffoon that combines surface beauty with intellectual docility and gracelessness. You know the type I mean. Think of Zara Phillips, who on winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year five years back accepted her award with an utterly absurd speech, in which she seemed to abandon the rudiments of her expensive education and said the word "amazing" nine times in succession. It would have seemed a brilliant bit of oratory if the volume were switched to mute.
Ms Phillips would feel very at home in the garlanded Gidleigh Park, a hotel of immense beauty with brilliant food, massively let down only by its prices. Perched on a throne atop a wooded valley in Dartmoor, and set among 54 acres of gloriously kept gardens, it is a three-storey, long Tudor building, which gains charm from being at the end of a one-and-a-half mile driveway. It was built in the 1920s by an Australian shipping magnate, and has won so many awards that it is now one of Devon's more celebrated tourist destinations.
But I am here for lunch with my girlfriend Charlie and her family, and not long after arriving, we are made to feel very queasy. Our red Audi is the only non-4x4 in the parking lot, save for two Porsches and an Aston Martin, and on entering the restaurant, and being guided to a waiting-room, we notice that those cars probably belong to one of two groups of corporate weekenders. That, predictably and unfortunately, is the clientele here: herds of touring suits.
Only they can afford this stuff. The fact that we are here doesn't mean we can afford it. Three courses with coffee and petit fours are £99 a head. A tasting menu of five courses, coffee and petit fours is £110 a person. And a signature menu of eight courses with coffee and petit fours is £120 a head. If you charge those prices, and stick your kitchen in the middle of Dartmoor, you are clearly inviting as your guests those who pay on the company card. A family day out this is not – unless you're Ms Phillips.
The owners' defence is obviously that their two-Michelin-starred, multiple-award winning food is worth it. But that is a delusion, and I find this apparent disregard for middle-class affordability particular dispiriting given the kitchen here was raised to prominence by local boy-done-good Michael Caines. An adopted child, he grew up in Exeter, and was recently spotted throwing shapes in the city's main nightclub, Timepiece, by my brother-in-law Paddy – which is to say, he has remained true to his roots. Caines is probably one of the 10 best chefs in the country, was assiduously mentored by Raymond Blanc, and has the inspirational record of returning to this kitchen a fortnight after losing his right arm in a car accident.
The food is obviously outstanding, but the ambience is abysmal. We are led to a boxy room with burgundy walls overlooking a patio area. It is staid, oppressive and stuck in the 1990s. The lunch menu – £37 for two courses, or £47.50 for three – is a series of excellent dishes, but annoyingly there are only three options with each course. The starters are salad of celeriac with celeriac purée, soy, and a wonderful truffle vinaigrette; a Cornish mackerel with fennel salad; and a terrine of chicken with truffle and leek salad.
Among the mains there is a wild-mushroom raviolo with perfect poached quails' eggs and mushroom velouté (a rich white sauce thickened with cream or egg yolk); a lemon sole with ragout of asparagus, broad beans and a white-wine and tarragon sauce; and, best of all, squab of pigeon with pea purée, wild garlic and a Madeira sauce. There are three desserts – banana parfait with chocolate-and-lime sorbet, chocolate tart with coffee ice-cream and coffee-cream Anglaise, and apple mousse with apple ice-cream, cider coulis and cinnamon sable.
It's all Michelin-worthy – but the wine list, too, is extortionate. I'm sure that for diners who don't feel the pinch when settling the bill, this is an excellent way to waste money. On food alone, this would score nine out of 10. But given that a family meal here will cost you more than a standard weekend to, say, Prague (flights included), I suspect you're better off spending your weekend reading the rest of this excellent publication, or else contemplating your garden.
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
Gidleigh Park Chagford, Devon, tel: 01647 432 367 Lunch and dinner daily. About £350 for four, including wine
Oakham, Rutland, tel: 01572 756 991
This one-time hunting lodge has a wonderful location overlooking Rutland Water, and Aaron Patterson's cooking is bang up to date too, without being modish
Gittisham, Honiton, Devon, tel: 01404 540 400
This small, privately owned Elizabethan manor house pulls off a hat-trick with its interesting food, outstanding service and magical location
Cowan Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, tel: 01524 271 187
An atmospheric, 15th-century high-ceilinged hall provides a baronial setting for a meal at this country-house hotel; first-class food and friendly, unpretentious service
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com