It looked good on paper. No, scratch that, it looked great on paper. A new boutique hotel in rural Hampshire, styled by über-designer David Collins and with a kitchen headed by Michelin-starred Alex Aitken. Lime Wood definitely looked worth a run out of London on a crisp winter Sunday.
It's the latest in a line of country hotels for city slickers, a trend started by Babington House. A discreet sign (too discreet for my aunt and uncle, joining me for lunch from nearby Southampton) signals where to turn off from the New Forest lane, revealing an elegant, cream-stone Regency house with chic landscaping. Still promising.
Inside, we're greeted – or rather, not greeted – by a receptionist on the phone berating a customer for being unable to see the road-side sign. I feel sorry for the chap at the other end and anyway, whatever happened to "the customer is always right"? Not his fault Mr Collins decided on green lettering on a dark green background...
A young man in cords, brown woolly polo neck and flat cap steps forward to save us from feeling stranded in our coats and hats. Why is a hotel guest helping us out? Turns out his squire-lite gear is the hotel uniform. Charming, if perplexing.
We take pre-lunch drinks in the bar – a coolly comfortable room, with silver leather armchairs and a spot-lit array of dozens of bottles; a sophisticated stag night could do some damage here. The maître d' takes drinks orders and hands us menus. The offering of the all-day Scullery, the less formal of Lime Wood's two restaurants, is the kind of witty nosh weekending urbanites love – Heinz baked beans on toast (£4), spotted dick with Bird's custard (£5.50), goosey roast potatoes (£3.50) and fish fingers with mushy peas (£6.50). It all sounds fun and hearty, and the prices are competitive, to say the least. Just the sort of dishes you'd want to eat after a bracing walk round the surrounding woods and parkland.
My aunt, who eats like a bird, fancies lobster Caesar salad (starter size, £15), which slightly steals my lobster and chips thunder. I order it anyway, half a beast for £27.50, after a twice-baked soufflé with glazed cheese crust (£6.50). Sister Claire has mixed beets, goat's cheese and pine nut salad (£6.50) and uncle Tony goes old school with spicy prawn cocktail (£8.50); they both like the sound of the Sunday roast – lamb with those goosey potatoes and veggies. We move into the Scullery, a pretty room tricked out like a vintage kitchen – faux dressers with plate racks and jars of preserves line the grey, painted walls and a large fireplace at one end looks inviting. You can almost imagine Mrs Bridges bustling about.
Unfortunately, what follows is a catalogue of errors, some of which I'd charitably call teething problems – Lime Wood had only been open three weeks at our visit in mid-December. Off the plate, having a pianist play relentlessly and loudly just outside the doorway to a room in which there's piped Muzak is a schoolboy error: we struggle to hold a conversation over the clashing sounds. I want to quote Pride and Prejudice's Mr Bennett: "You've delighted us long enough." Meanwhile, offering enormous – almost serving-size – spoons with which to eat soufflé or, later, a modest two scoops of ice-cream, is just daft. Take note Messrs Collins and Aitken.
More worryingly, no one thinks it necessary to tell Claire that her mixed beets salad has no beetroot in it, as chef hasn't got any. No one asks if I want a giant gloop of unadvertised caper-y mayonnaise with the lobster; it kills the flavour of the delicate flesh and once I scoop it aside, it slides greasily around on the wooden block my dish is served on. The goosey roasties are a little tired-tasting but since we didn't sit down till 2.30pm I'm happy to concede it's tough for a kitchen to avoid that fate. My "baked buttery rice pudding" is a tad too sloppy but a good baked rice pud takes three hours in the oven, so perhaps I shouldn't have expected anything else.
So, we retire back to the bar for coffee (served in giant mugs – where are we, Brobdingnag?) and a post-mortem. The place is modishly designed, but there's some work to be done before I'd part again with £150 for four (no wine) for a hit-and-miss lunch. Lime Wood has bags of potential – it just needs to live up to it.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Lime Wood, Beaulieu Road, Lyndhurst, Hampshire, tel: 0238 028 7177 The Scullery open all day. Lunch: £75 for two, excluding wine
Second helpings: More country charm
Ardeonaig Hotel & Restaurant
South Loch Tay Rd, Killin, Perth & Kinross, tel: 01567 820 400
An excellent South African wine list (reflecting the owners' nationality) and a remote location are constants at this ambitious hotel that recently underwent a £1.6m expansion
The Grove, Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire, tel: 01923 296 015
The something-for-everyone buffet-restaurant of this groovy-grand country-house hotel is a fun place to visit once in a while
Llandrillo, Denbighshire, tel: 01490 440 264
A real Welsh treat. A wonderfully-situated restaurant- with-rooms makes meticulous use of local produce to create melting dishes