The Compleat Angler is one of those hotels (and book titles) that seem the quintessence of Englishness. It fills your head with thoughts of Henley Regatta and Ascot Races, Eton and Oxford, Izaak Walton and J R Hartley and whoever it was that wrote, "Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song". The hotel is 400 years old and sits perched on the riverside where, in summer, white cabin-cruisers disgorge well-heeled Home Counties couples to sit at the front lawn's white tables and chat the afternoon away. It's here that William Drabble has brought the décor and kitchen skills from Aubergine, the Fulham restaurant where Gordon Ramsay first made his name, and which won Drabble a Michelin star in 1998.
The dining room is very aubergine, that is, a rich, episcopal purple covers the tables and is overlaid by short white tablecloths, like surplices over altar robes. The effect is slightly spoilt by remnants of the room's old design, which throws us back to the 1930s: the bricky fireplace, the leaded windows with their wave-and-fish detail. But you forgive the décor because, beyond the window, the Thames cascades through the 200-metres-wide Marlow Weir, the water churning up a hectic music to rival the squawky jazz on the speakers.
Possibly fearing a lack of "passing trade" by the Thames in a recessionary autumn, the owners offer three menus: à la carte (£45 for two courses), a menu gourmand (£65 for 7 courses, but £120 if you fancy "the sommelier's choice of wine" with each course, which sounds a drunken riot), and the slightly prosaic lunch menu which is excellent value at £28.50 for three courses – but you're in for a surprise when the bill comes. The head waiter was French with an hauteur that could only be Parisian, the sommelier a Norwegian charmer, and the waiter a dead ringer for Mr Bean (but much nicer). They were all obsessive shooers-away of crumbs and similar debris after every course, as though you were making a shocking mess and needed a telling-off.
The food suffered from pretension and an excess of dairy products. Butter and cream sauces were everywhere, and a curious heaviness lay on the meal; it lacked a light touch, some trace of joy. A bonne bouche of marinated cured salmon on a beetroot terrine was a chilly and unexciting opening shot; the beetroot wasn't a terrine, merely a tidy pile of purple slabs, chosen because the colour matched the room.
Our first courses looked tiny and lost in the middle of vast white plates the size of UFOs. My brace of seared scallops were small, firm and deliciously accessorised with bacon, onions and fat peas – but if you're giving the dish such hearty treatment, shouldn't there be more of the actual dish? My date's mousse of foie gras with girolles was hard to love. It was the consistency of a thick sauce, and mildly sickly. The taste of girolles struggled against the goose liver, while the presence of straw potatoes offered a confusing third element: gloopy, mushroomy and crunchy? I don't think so.
A second wave of flying saucers brought my pork cheeks braised in Madeira with mustard cream sauce. I don't think I'd ever tried a pig's actual face before, and they were – there really is no other word for it – chubby. They tasted fat and pink and faintly comical. Outside they were dark-brown, gelatinous, the result of long braising, inside, a mass of fibres, about to fall apart; delicious in a disconcerting way, and the accompanying mash was a cardiac nightmare of creamiosity. My friend's baked fillets of plaice in lobster butter sauce were inspiringly twinned with baked fennel, a pleasing combination to which the under-seasoned lobster sauce added little. The fish itself was delicious, al dente and wholly satisfying.
Towards the end of this faintly stodgy repast, I began to realise how expensive the place is: a bottle of sparkling water costs £4, filter coffee is £5.50. Having cheese for pudding whacks you with an £8 supplement. If the waiter carves your shoulder of lamb at your table, that's another £10. The cheese, though, artfully arrayed on a long plate, from the mildest (chèvres) to the strongest (bleu d'Auvergne), was yummy, and the waiter's secret jar of truffle honey was sheer ecstasy. A pudding of "set vanilla cream with figs poached in red wine" was a little riot of flavours and turned the meal's narrative towards a happy ending. So did a little gesture of the waiter's. We were drinking wine by the glass and, as the level dropped, around the cheese course, he appeared with the relevant bottles and topped them up. Gratis. This is almost unheard-of. If this is the restaurant's policy, Aubergine is to be congratulated, and forgiven its slightly gloopy excesses.
Aubergine at the Compleat Angler, Bisham Road, Marlow, Buckinghamshire (01628 405405)
About £115 for two with wine
"Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary and all of it goes to restaurant staff; all the tips go to the staff, too"
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