"Pebble Beach, far away in time," you find yourself adapting Martha and the Muffins as you park the car on the clifftop drive. "Pebble Beach, far away in time, Pebble Beach..." And as you push the door, you feel you've stepped back 20 years in time, to a kinder, simpler age when all restaurant menus came in floppy leather (with photos of the shellfish platter), all dining-rooms were on a split level, with fleshy-orangey chairs, tables and curtains, and a wrought-iron fence as a "feature".
The owners have tried to modernise this old-fashioned seaside eating house – there's a small bar area and an 'oyster bar' where you can perch on a stool to watch the chefs in action – but they're both empty at 8.30 on a Wednesday night. All the action is in the restaurant, which is packed out with chattering trippers.
Then you venture outside, and all your ignorant metropolitan carping evaporates. The view from the terrace is wonderful: you're looking at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, and the trio of chalk rocks called The Needles that poke out of the sea and used to be a menace to shipping until they stuck a lighthouse in front of them in 1859. It's a beautifully tranquil scene, with Barton beach on your left, Poole to your right and the millpond of Christchurch Bay in front of you. Gulls fly overhead, barking discreetly, as though reluctant to disturb the calm. We ordered cocktails from one of the pretty waitresses, sat on the black chairs beside the patio heater and thought, ooh yes, we could stay here for hours...
The menu features lots of shellfish, 'Lighter Options' for those who want fish and chips or sole goujons, vegetarian options, half a dozen char-grill specials. But the chef here is a serious player: Lyons-born Pierre Chevillard, who was head chef at Chewton Glen (the country house hotel and health farm in nearby New Milton) for 24 years. He combines absolutely precise cooking skills with a generous hand in portions and presentation.
Angie's gravadlax was cured to a phenomenally silken texture, liberally Jackson-Pollocked with scribbles of tarragon cream accompanied by triangles of toast. My scallops and tiger prawns came à la nage, that is, poached in a court bouillon, with the liquid included as a soup. The prawns were perfect, tightly al dente and full of flavour, the scallops a little spongey (I don't think poaching scallops is a terrific idea) and the julienne of celery, carrots and tomatoes floated blissfully in the chardonnay broth.
Main course stir-fried lobster tempura was almost perfect. The stir-fried vegetables were soy-drenched but delicious. The shellfish itself was faultless. The batter, however, was too hefty – it clutched around the lobster like a soft, thick cardigan. My pan-fried duck breast was astonishing, two thick tranches roasted and basted until the skin shone with umami moistness. They sat like twin behemoths amid a multitude of broad beans, peas, carrots, courgettes and dauphinoise potatoes with a cheese crust. Much work had gone into the sauce – a reduction of chicken and vegetable stock, with caramel, vinegar and blackcurrants. I felt like bounding into the kitchen and thanking M Chevillard for keeping the fruit quotient (that has ruined so many duck dishes) to a succulent minimum.
Outside, the almost-full moon rose and played hide-and-seek amid an armada of fluffy clouds, occasionally casting long shafts of glowing moonlight on the sea. Romantic couples d'un certain âge stood on the terrace in elderly bliss. Our waitress asked if we'd like to see the pudding menu. Yeah, I said, and perhaps another glass of this excellent Malbec...
Moments passed. Then I turned my head – and blow me down. Everybody had disappeared. All the diners had gone. The tables were deserted. The room was empty. Our beautiful waitress had simply dematerialised. Even the terrace canoodlers had vamoosed. I looked at my watch – it was 10.21pm. In response to an unheard signal, the entire clientele of the Pebble Beach restaurant had vanished. It was like the end of The Tempest: "These our actors,/ As I told you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air".
Had a charabanc arrived and driven them all to Poole? Had we entered some gastronomic Twilight Zone? Eventually, after half an hour, a charming woman appeared, nonchalantly took our pudding order (chocolate Liégeois, involving parfait, rum granita and meringue, quite yummy) and explained that "People around here do rather like an early night". Well I dare say they do – but I've never been deserted for half an hour by a whole restaurant before. The Pebble Beach is well worth a detour by anyone venturing near Bournemouth, but it must be careful not to turn into the Mary Celeste at 10.30 each night...
Pebble Beach, Marine Drive Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire (01425 627777)
About £110 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Briny bites
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