You know Michael Caines, don't you, the handsome Anglo-Caribbean head chef at Gidleigh Park Country House Hotel, a sort of super-foodie's Downton Abbey on the edge of Dartmoor? Three years ago it was named the UK's "best all-round restaurant" in the Harden's guide. Caines is famous for three things: 1) steering Gidleigh Park to win, and keep, two Michelin stars, 2) appearing on TV a lot (Celebrity Masterchef, Saturday Kitchen, Great British Menu), and 3) losing his right arm at 25 after in a car accident on the M4, and still winning Michelin stars while using a metal prosthesis.
In the 21st century, Caines expanded his empire across the nation, setting up the ABode hotel chain with the entrepreneur Andrew Brownsword (hence that annoying AB in the company name): there are six ABode hotels with Caines restaurants, from Canterbury and Bath to Manchester and Glasgow. Last weekend, I found myself in Exeter, checking out the university and looking for somewhere to eat. Where better than the Caines establishment in the ABode hotel beside the stupendous Decorated Gothic pile of the cathedral?
The hotel used to be the Royal Clarence, a handsome 17th-century coaching inn. The name is still over the entrance, with the ABode sign stuck to one side, as though apologising for its presumption. Inside, I found the restaurant, but it looked so drab I assumed it must be the Michael Caines Café Bar & Grill (Caines spreads himself around his native Exeter as if he's learnt from Rick Stein in Padstow). But I was wrong. This is a fine-dining restaurant like you've seldom seen.
The décor is terrible – glum, characterless, defeated, the kind of setting a middle-aged commercial traveller might balk at. The recessed lighting is as harsh and unflattering as an Isis interrogation cell. On the grey walls, three horrible paintings, of lemon, peas and tomatoes, offer the only sign of life. A long mirror tries to convey the impression that the pokey room is twice the size it is. The look of the dining room tries for Minimal but achieves only Don't Care.
We were about to leave when an amuse-bouche arrived: carrot soup with curry oil, served in a long shot glass. It was delicious. Homemade, just-baked, honey-and-bran pain de Morvan came apart in heavenly farls which, anointed by soft, salty butter, were yummy. We started to relax.
The menu, however, was a puzzle. The prices and dishes were strangely random. One starter, pan-fried scallops with sweetcorn and chorizo, was £16.95, which made it more expensive than three of the main courses. Among the mains, sweet potato hash was priced like a starter at £8.95. Other main options were risotto, hake, bass, venison and veal. And that was it – no chicken, no lamb, no beef, no duck, no pork. You call that a choice?
I tried the quail egg tartlet, which meant four quail eggs, fried on one side with a soft onion confit, girolle mushrooms and a dab of watercress purée. It was a lovely combination of flavours, lightly tweaked with the green jus. Angie's tartare of mackerel and lime was, as the name suggests, raw fish served like rillettes, accompanied by lime with little dollops of wasabi cream and a carpaccio of beetroot. It was very light and pretty geisha food, although the wasabi cream made you gasp.
Cauliflower risotto with golden raisins, caperberries and coriander was, as risottos go, fine – nicely cooked, the Arborio rice perfectly separated – but contained a nasty surprise. "It's like eating a really good cauliflower cheese," my wife said, "until you hit the combination of capers and raisins. The raisins are very sweet, the capers slightly vinegary. Put them together, it's a bit like eating sick."
My £23 roast venison was a butch and dramatic dish: two rare chunks of deer meat, as soft as Bambi's tongue, shared the plate with some rather unyielding pork belly, plus figs, red cabbage and what looked like scored crackling but turned out to be a Portobello mushroom. The textures contrasted nicely, the venison melted on my tongue like a Communion host and the red wine jus and chestnut purée kept everything moistened.
A competent poached pear served with a pink pear sorbet, pear jelly and blobs of caramel sauce ended a meal that raised more questions than it answered. Much of the cooking was done with confidence and flair. But how can the owners take so little interest in the ambience of a restaurant where dinner for two with drinks costs £130? What's a £17 starter doing on the menu? Why is the choice of meat so narrow? Who decided raisins and capers made a happy marriage? And when was the last time Mr Caines inspected the quality of dining-out that punters experience under his name on a Saturday night in his hometown?
ABode Exeter, Cathedral Yard, Exeter (01392 319955). Around £36 per head for three courses, before wine and serviceReuse content