Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, 9 Fore Street, Evershot, Dorset
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 15 October 2011
Evershot, in West Dorset, reeks with literary association. It turns up in Tess of the D'Urbevilles as "the small town or village of Evershead" where Tess pauses on her way to call on Angel Clare's parents: "She made a halt here and breakfasted a second time, heartily enough – not at the Sow and Acorn, for she avoided inns, but at a cottage by the church." The church is St Basil's (patron saint of hoteliers, I expect) and the poet George Crabbe was rector there. Had poor Ms D'Urbeville lived a century later, she could have had her breakfast at Summer Lodge, a former dower-house whose grounds were part-designed by Thomas Hardy, when he was the local architect.
It's now a country house hotel of sumptuous, indeed fabulous, excess: its décor and furnishings so plumped and primped, so louche and luxuriant, that you find a tut-tutting puritan lurking in your conscience, muttering: "This is too much." The lounge in which we sat before dinner is full of plush fat sofas. The ruched gold ball-skirted curtains are the kind of thing that used to be seen on the shoulders of the Duchess of York. On two tables, left there as though by an eccentric ducal host, are at least 100 bottles of whisky, gin, brandy, rum and Armagnac. There's a huge fire in the grate – unlit on this warm night – and a big portrait on the wall of a troubled Hispanic beauty in a frock, from the school of post-operation Frieda Kahlo.
As we took all this in, along with our (huge) G&Ts, the amuses-bouches arrived: delicious tiny arancini, a miniature Waldorf salad with the blue cheese heftily predominant, and a mini-burger, with tomato relish. A plate of enormous green olives added to the general air of opulent over-stuffed-ness.
The dining-room offered a whole new arena of excess. Chintz floral prints on a cream background ran up the curtains, or protruded from the white walls as button-back banquettes. The non-matching carpet was a riot of pink-patterned diamond shapes. A brace of South American china horses stood around at the far end, looking faintly embarrassed to be trapped in this Colefax & Fowler whirlwind.
The décor is very distracting, but you get used to it: like listening to a surfeit of light-orchestral music. The food, however, is far less fussy. My Dorset Downs breast of partridge was an honest-to-God lump of game whose earthy pong was sweetened by glazed pears and celeriac purée, and given a final rough kiss by crunchy bacon. The Lodge's chef, the pleasingly named Steven Titman, is admirably straightforward about his flavours. Angie's sweetcorn soup, lovingly served over two braised ham hock fritters, was a touch bland and oversalted but saved by the hocks in their deep-fried shrouds.
On the small table d'hôte menu (£40 for three courses) there was a limited quartet of mains: lamb, sole, calves' liver and polenta. My roast rump of Dorset lamb came in four soft tranches laid across a rectangular slab of potato: like my pheasant, it was simple and effective, a little undercooked but happily finished with a jus of black olives and, miraculously, nothing else. What a good idea that is, occasionally. It was delicious, and the accompanying vegetables attractively charred and toothsome. Angie's Cornish sole fillet with herb risotto was almost perfect: the fish deliciously buttery, the risotto creamy and rich – but again, the salt had been added by a heavy hand. A bottle of wonderfully savoury (black plum and beef gravy flavours, with a touch of cherry) Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine de Ferraud '05 went brilliantly with the lamb, and sang in unexpected harmony with the fish. It was recommended and presented with a flourish by our charming wine waiter Eric Zweibel from Alsace. But I couldn't fault any of the hotel's staff for attentiveness – it was a touch disconcerting to find that, as in the bar in Cheers, everybody in the Lodge knows your name, and calls you (well, me anyway) "Mr Walsh" when serving you.
The hotel's reinterpretation of a classic Eton mess offered a formal arrangement of berries, unbroken roundels of meringue and a blackcurrant sorbet. They sat in the glass a little stiffly, like guests who haven't been introduced. The berries were a little tart, and the sorbet too icy on the spoon: how one longed for the bashed-up creamy-crunchy chaos of the real thing. But I forgot my disappointment when faced with a selection of the 27 cheeses on the tray, each fluently described by the charming waiter. The highlights were Ogleshield from Jersey, Winscombe from north Somerset, Yarg from Cornwall (did you know it's "Gray" spelt backwards, after the couple who invented the recipe in the 1970s?) and Cashel Blue from Ireland. A blissful selection.
This was a slightly hit-and-miss meal from a chef with bags of skill who will go far (provided he has a word with the salt cellar sous-chef.) How Tess would have been comforted by the partridge-with-pears after being dumped by the awful Mr Clare.
Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, 9 Fore Street, Evershot, Dorset (01935 482000)
About £120 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge for groups of fewer than 10 people. All tips go to the staff"
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