There are some wonderful things about doing this job. Yes, the free dinners, all that's great, of course. But the biggest perk of all is to discover a small independent restaurant run by a chef of talent and imagination, and to give it the kind of humdinging review that will put it on the map.
That's what I hoped would happen when I sniffed out The Lord Clyde, a rural Cheshire pub whose chef-patron worked in some pretty fancy places before taking over his local 18 months ago. From the website, and the chef's food-porn Twitter feed, it looked like a slam-dunk rave. But things didn't quite work out like that, and now I'm faced with the very worst aspect of the job: discovering an independent restaurant trying to do something special, and giving it a bit of a kicking.
To be clear before I go in, I had a good time at The Lord Clyde. The welcome is genuinely warm and the snug dining room hums with the satisfied hubbub of happy punters being well looked after. My guests, who live close by, were charmed and delighted by the place – thankfully, as they'd generously bid to accompany me on a review in this paper's annual charity auction.
So why did I leave feeling like I'd narrowly escaped from the hands of a cult? Was it the chef-knows-best instruction on the order in which we should eat the hors d'oeuvres? The reverent incantation of ingredients for every course, a surrealist's fever dream mixed with a domestic science lesson (please don't tell me what temperature you've cooked the food at, it won't make it taste any better). Or was it just the oddness of eating a seven-course tasting menu of modernist food in a country pub which – to be brutal – could do with a lick of paint?
It's a pleasant enough little place, nestling at the edge of the Peak District a few miles outside Macclesfield. Not much in the way of a bar – just a few stools awkwardly jammed against the dining tables, all full on a Friday night. None of the usual foodie signifiers, apart from the wine infographic painted on one wall. And judging from the halogen lighting and orange varnished woodwork, no recent visit from the interior designers either, or our old friends Mr Farrow and Mr Ball.
The homely pubbishness is very much at odds with Ernst Van Zyl's food, which is fancy to the point of fanciful. His seven-course tasting menu opens with those strictly regulated nibbles, including a beetroot macaron so light it's like a blast of air, and something involving fish-skin, eel and rhubarb which isn't very nice. Next, an oyster – cooked, we're told, at 63˚C – served in its shell with sweet-sharp apple granita, and a dab of caviar. Then bread – terrific, springy sourdough – with smoking butter, which arrives billowing like incense, but has the claggy-mouth feel of lard.
It's with the signature TLC salad that I start to lose confidence. A prettily composed confection of baby leaves and shaved, pureed and pickled veg, coiffed with a potato crisp, it registers as a series of contrasting textures, rather than the anticipated flavour bomb.
Other dishes follow the same pattern: intricately wrought, beautiful and slightly muddled. Admittedly, I was getting to know my NBFs Tro and Paul, and wasn't 100 per cent focused on the food. But usually a tasting menu will register a few vivid memories. In this case, I was left with an impressionistic blur of blobs and dashes, of dehydrated and pickled bits and bobs. The menu talks of "unpretentious modern British flavours". If this is Van Zyl's idea of unpretentious, I wouldn't like to see him come over the full Hyacinth Bucket.
One exception was a duck dish which was less technical, but more satisfying: two fingers of carmine-rare breast with savoury granola, wild mushrooms and roast and pureed beetroot, all anchored by a deeply reduced sauce. Another stand-out was an unlikely pairing of dark chocolate, grapefruit and mascarpone, which we convinced nervous eater Paul to try on the grounds that at least it didn't contain any beetroot.
Hostess Sarah Richmond, Van Zyl's partner, is a natural front woman, who does her best to bridge the gap between the kitchen's ambitions and the desire of customers to relax and have a nice time. But there's still a distinct feeling of Big Chef in a Small Restaurant hanging over the place.
This is clearly meant to be food to be noticed; they're practically hanging out of the windows waving at the Michelin inspectors. But, if the undoubtedly talented Van Zyl could sit in his own tiny dining room and experience dinner at The Lord Clyde as a punter, I wonder whether he would calm down a bit. After all, there's more to a destination restaurant than destination food.
36 Clarke Lane, Bollington, Cheshire SK10 5AH (01625 562123). Tasting menu: £52.50 (7 courses); £78.50 (10 courses). A la carte: starters £7-£12, mains £14-£25Reuse content