Charlotte Lloyd-Wrigley, the 23-year-old entrepreneur behind Petit Mange in Exeter's St Leonard's suburb, deserves a lot of respect. Asked by the city's Express and Echo whether opening a new restaurant in a recession was wise, she said: "It's always going to be a bad time to open a business. You could say, 'We can't open now because of the recession,' but we have priced for the recession and there are still people going out every night of the week in Exeter."
Exactly. That is precisely the risk-taking spirit that will drag our country out of recession, and the prices in this new venture, replacing a restaurant called The Cat in the Hat, are certainly reasonable. St Leonard's is a calm, relatively affluent part of the city, and meant to be a foodie village in its own right. There is a butcher, fishmonger, bakery, delis and cafés. Petit Mange is pitched as an upper-end food experience compared with these neighbours, which it could yet be. But not without major and obvious improvements.
A split-level bistro, it has awful décor. Where we are sat at least, the work of a local artist, selling at around £300 a pop, is pure splodge on canvas. There is an unpredictable music selection bursting out of a single iPod dock, which tonight plays Brahms, Oasis, Kings of Leon and Kelis in sequence. I would expect only marginally better at Timepiece, the city's biggest club, where Lloyd-Wrigley used to work.
The menu is short (four starters, four sides, six mains and five desserts) and from Monday to Saturday you can get two courses for £15 or three for £18.50, both with a glass of house wine. That's pricing for the recession, all right, and so is the magnificent policy of doing a decent bottle of house white or red for £11. Wouldn't it be wonderful, by the way, if all bistros served a house wine for a tenner? If they sourced it properly, they could make a huge profit by doing so.
But the food is executed poorly, which is surprising given how highly rated head chef Adam Page is. The home-made chive-and-red-onion bread is inedible, oversalted to the point of tasting as if marinated in Persil. The scallops on confit vanilla potato with gazpacho salsa (£6.50) are anodyne, and the manchego cheese parfait with citrus brioche and stewed tomato (£5.50) – glorified cheese and biscuits – is unremarkable. The pigeon breast with shallot confit tartlet, sweet potato and buttered spinach (£6.50) is better, but lukewarm. Easily the best starter is an excellent braised beef cheek tart in a crispy exterior – think spring roll – with beetroot purée, hazelnut and delicate, flavourful pickled mushrooms (£6.50).
Ordering the hake with brown shrimp, crushed new potatoes and saffron butter (£13.50) is a cause of instant regret. The hake is tepid; and worse, the new potatoes are flat raw underneath. The saffron is too weak in the butter, and the shrimps overcooked. This, admittedly, is the worst of the mains I share with four guests; but none of them sparkle. The duck breast with spiced red cabbage (£14.50) is tender but again not warm enough. Exactly the same is true of the pork chop with potatoes, apples and maple syrup sauce (£13). And though the various elements of the fried salmon with sweet-potato mash, mange tout and tomato-and-chorizo sauce (£15) are passable, the plate fails to warrant a salmon's murder.
Among the desserts, a lemon posset (£5) has barely a trace of citrus flavour, tasting instead of whipped cream and vanilla essence. My friend Jennie and I order a chocolate fondant with Mexican vanilla ice-cream (£6). And what's that? Well, "Mexican", as translated by the kitchen staff, seemingly means banana flavour, because both of us get banana ice-cream without a hint of vanilla.
By now I have decided not to complain. So we order some dessert wine: £4 a glass, so some consolation, hopefully. Except that what arrives are 35ml shot glasses. Usually dessert wine comes in measures of 125ml. So this is really about £14 a glass. No thanks.
I hope that by the time you walk past Petit Mange, look at the menu and decide to step inside, it has become Exeter's best bistro. For that to happen, the food, décor and music must improve. Only then will it begin to live up to the admirable Lloyd-Wrigley's lofty ambitions.
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
Petit Mange, 29 Magdalen Road, St Leonard's, Exeter, tel: 01392 435 883£48 for two, including wine. Lunch and dinner, Mon-Fri; dinner, Sat
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com