Sometimes you find yourself sitting in a restaurant involuntarily compiling a snagging list - one of those inventories of niggles with which homeowners torture builders. It wasn't what I wanted to do when I visited The Hop Pole in Bath, having just emerged from a matinee performance of Waiting for Godot. I wanted to restore a sense of life's essential benevolence, after watching a play in which the menu consists of a shrivelled carrot, a black radish and some discarded chicken bones. But there's a downhill momentum about snagging. One quibble joins another and before long they're calling out to others to join them ... and make up a formal list. So here, for what it's worth, is mine.
Location: Not really a snag to be honest, but certainly a missing-step lurch in one's expectations. You hear the words "Bath gastropub" and you see honey-coloured stone and a generous slice of 18th-century terrace. You don't see a busy A-road and a system-built furniture warehouse next door, which is what you get. Then again The Hop Pole looks like a real local and that sense is even stronger inside - in a friendly tumble of small, interlocking rooms, which lead to a neat, narrow restaurant and a garden cleverly insulated from its slightly drab industrial surroundings. This is a real beer drinker's oasis. Which brings us to ...
Beer: If you're proud of it why on earth don't you put it on your wine list? The Hop Pole is one of a string of six pubs run by the local brewery Bath Ales, all listed in the Camra Good Beer Guide, so I imagine that diners here are more open than most to the idea of drinking beer with good food. But you have to ask to find out what's available ... in my case a pint of Gem, a bright, beginner's bitter, followed by a pint of Barnstormer, a darker ale with a distinctive chocolatey note ... both with more than enough flavour to justify a place on the menu.
Portions: The gastropub trend may be taken in some quarters as a licence to print money, but there is such a thing as decorum. If you're selling Thai-style crab-cakes at £6.95 a portion, most people would expect more than two, given that they're the size of large walnuts. Serving two of any small item is a mistake anyway; the aesthetics are lousy and the economics are insultingly transparent. And if you really insist on two they need to punch well above their weight in terms of taste. These didn't.
Garnish: Banish those pointless ruffs of lollo rosso, which appear to be used solely to disguise the alarmingly large portion of plate which would be left uncovered by two meagre crab cakes. Either a dish can stand without a garnish or it deserves a properly dressed one. Lollo rosso should be banished anyway - almost as tasteless as the muzak which accompanied it.
Salt: A horribly undervalued ingredient these days. To my mind the potato and garlic soup (£4.95) was far too light on garlic and far too heavy on cream anyway. But those deficiencies wouldn't have been quite so obvious if it had been properly seasoned. And if underseasoning is a policy, designed to deal with the sodium phobics, then at least put a dish of decent sea salt on the table for the rest of us.
Pink: Really tricky one this, since one man's pink is another man's raw. The fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef (£15.95, you bandits) was spot on - ordered medium (children are very conservative about these things) and served that way. But my lamb escalopes (£12.95) could have done with at least another 45 seconds on the grill and five more minutes in a warm place to relax. Serving them sliced may be a cliché, but at least it allows you to check.
Chips: Make your own. Perhaps you already do, but in that case why go to so much trouble to make them look and taste like McCain's? A fat, hand-cut chip is a reliable hallmark of a good gastropub - a dish in which the ratio of labour to customer satisfaction is overwhelmingly in your favour. So why deliver something that looks like convenience food?
We finished with an excellent brownie and a boldly tart lemon and lime cheesecake - but unfortunately it was the chips that stuck in the mind. E
The Hop Pole, Albion Buildings, Upper Bristol Road, Bath (01225 446327)
£56.60 for two without drinks
Side orders: Ale and hearty
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