"Would you like some bread while you look at the menu?" An innocuous enough proposal but when it really means, "May I charge you for something you believe is free?", I get resentful. If the rest of the experience during my visit to the George & Dragon in the village of Rowde, Wiltshire, was exemplary, I might have forgiven the patron for this sleight of hand, but it is the first of several moves that make the meal slightly uncomfortable.
I am in Wiltshire for a meal to celebrate several birthdays – mine, my father's and my son's. Turns out it's quite tricky to find a good restaurant in this neck of the woods on a Saturday night in June that's not been taken over for a wedding. But I'm told by my relatives down the M4 corridor that the George & Dragon has a good reputation – particularly for fish, which the website boasts is brought in every day from Cornish fishing boats.
Our party of six hungry Markwells arrives at 6.30pm – this, I figure, makes life easier for us and the kitchen. (I've never understood the logic of making young children sit quietly in restaurants late in the evening. You wouldn't call them to the table at home then make them wait around for 40 minutes before the food shows up, would you?) Early arrival should mean an energetic chef and sprightly serving staff. We shall see.
The day's specials are chalked up. Dover and lemon sole, lobster, and local crayfish sound promising. That bread – six standard-issue rolls smeared with garlic butter or mustard – arrives while we're still deciding whether Dover sole at £27.50 represents good value (Mr M senior has a good appetite).
The second gaffe of the night arrives with his starter, in fact. A potted-crab dish comes with a giant gobbet of unadvertised and unwanted cheese on top. That he only eats cheese "once or twice a year" is a family tradition, and from his expression, he didn't want this to be one of those occasions. Ah well, the crab underneath is deemed very tasty; as are the puce, perky crayfish, which my mother can't quite comprehend have been caught in the nearby River Kennet.
A long wait for our main courses ensues. We exhaust who's been up to what and resort – as families do – to chatting to our neighbours, a mother and daughter visiting from Canada. What they make of this rustic pub room with city prices is anyone's guess.
Finally, more food. I am so proud that my son has ordered halibut with crab risotto (critic in training, clearly) that it's beyond dismaying that the dish before him is a heap of risotto with no discernible fish. Where's the halibut? "Oh, it's underneath," the patron answers loftily. It is not. So did he write the order down wrong, or not check the food at the pass? Pretty shabby, either way, and there's no apology forthcoming.
Scallop and black-pudding salad (£23), meanwhile, is a pleasing combination and if the monkfish wrapped in Parma ham (£16.50) is a little less generous and crisp than I'd imagined, it goes down just fine. The lemon and Dover sole, one for each parent, is the star of the show – fresh and excellently prepared, although it has been taken off the bone and Mrs M senior wishes she had either been offered the choice.
The plus and minus columns of this meal are each filling up. Great fish, but chips that are served in a sauté pan – a misleading affectation if ever I saw one – and sauté potatoes which are a little flabby for this early in service.
The George & Dragon redeems itself with wonderful home-made ice-creams, a humungous raspberry roulade (with extra cream, oh heavens) and a vast cloud of Eton mess (£6 each).
So the bill, for four adults, two children, a bottle and two glasses of wine, two pints and some tap water, comes in at £275, which is steep, I think. I don't subscribe to the view that one should expect cheaper prices out of London – great produce and great cooking is worth paying for wherever you are – but charging £7.50 for bread and £12 for vegetables which are described as included on the menu is galling.
Four of us hotfoot it back up the M4. The others, less than two miles away and potential regulars, won't be coming back – which, for a tucked-away gastropub in these times, is something the George & Dragon should give serious thought to.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
The George & Dragon, High Street, Rowde, Devizes, Wiltshire, tel: 01380 723 053 Lunch and dinner Mon-Sat; dinner Sun. £275 for dinner for six
More fishy gastropubs
The Swan Inn
Macclesfield Road, Kettleshulme, Derbyshire, tel: 01663 732 943
A gastronomic haven in the Peak District, this 15th-century inn attracts consistent praise for wonderful food, especially its fish
Innes Street, Plockton, Ross-Shire, tel: 01599 544 222
An inn (with its own smokery) that takes fish straight from the sea to the plate (and has the best prawns anywhere, too)
Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent, tel: 01227 273 370
Located on the salt marshes outside the town, this now-famous gastropub (of 10 years standing) is pretty much faultless – a relaxing place where the fish-based cuisine is simply superb
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.comReuse content