Look, I live in a big city. So I know all about "light" defining "space". I've even stayed at the St Martins Lane hotel, where guests are invited to modulate the colour of the lighting in their own bedrooms. And, I must say, I rather liked it. But I didn't expect to see it outside London. Certainly not in Walton-le-Dale, three miles outside Preston.
You see, Walton-le-Dale is suburbia. The kind of place where you expect to find a fashion boutique for middle-aged ladies - not a restaurant with Michelin pretensions. Inside Out has a calm airiness about it, and light wooden floorboards. But it wasn't until we sat down at our table that I noticed the "light" defining the "space" -- our "space". Our table had been singled out for a light show. Which made us rather self-conscious.
As we read the menu, we kept changing colour. Restaurateurs need to study their colour wheel with care. Under blue, you lose your appetite. Under yellow, your allergies flare up. But red? Well, you eat like a horse. Which was a perfect excuse - the room was red when Neris and I placed our order.
I buttered a hunk of home-baked chilli, coriander and lime bread to keep me going. It was delicious. Unfortunately, the rest of the food didn't look quite as imaginative. But there were signs of hope, like the clam chowder to counterpoint the John Dory, and the mint and potato gratin to finesse the lamb. So I ordered with my fingers crossed.
The scallops (£8.50) arrived with an orange and red pepper couscous, and a tart, citrus dressing. In London, I've eaten too many scallops that have been pasteurised and frozen to avoid cross-contamination. They have an ice-white look about them, and have been soaked in water to increase their weight. But these scallops were natural and unadulterated, with a delicious smack of the sea.
The roasted fig (£6) was wrapped in serrano ham. The rich meat, from the hind leg of a white pig, has a low moisture content because of the way it's salted and dried. That's why it needs to be sliced paper thin. This wasn't. And the end result was more Mexican saddle leather than Italian shoe leather. And, although the flavour was still elegantly nutty, it was missing a good ribbon of fat.
The fig was served with a cheese fondu (sic). Traditional fondue is made with a mixture of Emmenthaler, Gruyère and Appenzeller, melted together in a communal pot with white wine, kirsch and nutmeg. This was just a cheese sauce. And the spelling irritated me. There was also brushetta (sic) on the menu. A rule of thumb - if you can't spell it, you shouldn't try to cook it.
I was relieved by the chicken liver parfait (£5.75). It was spelt correctly, and it had all the fat I craved. But the Cumberland sauce was a little overpowering. This medley of lemon and orange zests, redcurrant jelly and port is ideal for strong gamey flavours. My delicate little parfait didn't stand a chance. I was reduced to scraping off the sauce, before I could smear the heavenly fat into piles on warm brioche toast.
The sirloin steak "baronne" (£13) made the most of the virtues of Nederburg Baronne - a modern wine that blends cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. As wine sorts would have it, the up-front fruit flavours with strong berry cabernet characteristics are backed by the spicy, cinnamony and elegant leathery Shiraz. It certainly lent itself to a heart-warming sauce.
Much of the cooking was textbook-correct, yet I wasn't awed. I was fed well and sent home. And while I might applaud the idea of a pineapple jus with the gammon (it's one up from tinned chunks) I would applaud even louder if I was offered a different way with gammon. A new way. A third way.
The cheeses came "from near and far". I'm not sure if Brie would count as "far". Not since the invention of the automobile. So, in protest, I ordered the assiette of puddings (£10.50) for two. It was in fact a charger, bearing eight full-sized puddings. I ate every one. But it wasn't my fault - the room was red. The light made me do it.
SECOND HELPINGS: LANCASHIRE HOT SPOTS
By Caroline Stacey
Pub that's gone progressively gastro, extending into a conversatory dining room complete with tablecloths and ambitious restaurant-style dishes. Bar food and beer keeps it down to earth.
Mellor Brook (01254 812219)
The Olive Press
Part of Lancastrian chef-prince Paul Heathcote's empire, the Mediterranean pizzeria and chargrill joint beneath main restaurant, Simply Heathcotes, crowd pleases with dishes for around £7.
23 Winckley Square, Preston (01772 886363)
Thyme at the Sirloin Inn
Lancashire Life mag's newcomer of the year is attached to an ancient pub. It's satisfying and fun: mainly trad dishes like pot roast beef, and bread and butter pudding served in a modern room.
Hoghton (01254 852293)
Black Bull Hotel
Excellent food served with attention but without pretention. Super fresh fish and a blackboard menu from Goosnargh duckling to rose petal ice cream. Hearty and classy bar snacks too.
Rimington (01200 445220)Reuse content