The ratings system used on this page doesn't really reflect the whole picture. One crucial aspect of the dining experience goes unrated – my behaviour as a customer. And thank God, because this week, I would have to award myself and my guests just one star. We arrived late. We were eight, when we'd booked for seven. We had four rain-soaked children in tow, one of whom ran amok and removed items of clothing. And, unforgiveably, we asked for things. Things that apparently couldn't be produced.
Some of the requested items were reasonable enough. Beer, for example. After all, The Partridge Inn, in the pretty market town of Wallingford, bills itself as a "country pub and restaurant", so you might expect it to have a good local bitter on draft. But no, the only draft beers were lagers. Undeterred, we went on to ask for bread. It didn't come. Then we moved on to more complex items, like a pen and some paper and, much later, a mop (don't ask), which also didn't come.
So, we were the customers from hell. But in our defence, we were in the wrong venue for what was meant to be a casual Sunday lunch. This is a smart, formal restaurant masquerading as a gastropub, a flamingo in partridge's clothing. We should have realised, given that the chef/proprietor José Cau trained under Raymond Blanc and Albert Roux before becoming private chef to the Aga Khan, that he was unlikely to open a homely boozer serving Old Speckled Hen and pork pies.
Not only is The Partridge a pub with no beer, it's a pub with no bar. A smart lounge area containing buffed leather sofas, Kelly Hoppen seating cubes and a shrouded chandelier is the only option for non-diners; not so much The Rovers Return as The Hairdressers' Retreat. The low-ceilinged dining room follows the dictats of modern restaurant design, with cream carpets, mocha walls and areas of bold, stylised wallpaper contrasting with exposed brickwork. I liked it, but my local friend, more attuned than I to decorative pretension in the Henley area, thought it was trying a bit hard – "Homes & Gardens rather than Country Living".
The menu, too, is ambitious, though limited in scope on Sunday lunchtimes by offering three traditional Sunday roasts among the main courses. They were the least successful part of a largely impressive lunch. Cau's mastery of contemporary techniques is evident in the delicate and beautifully plated starters, which use jellies, foams and impastoed purées, while coaxing deep flavours from the humblest of ingredients. His sweet potato and coriander soup was particularly good, as were seared scallops with lozenges of red pepper jelly and a swoop of maddeningly delicious sweet potato purée. At the cheffier end of the scale, breast of woodpigeon was mugged by the sweetness of a vanilla-scented parsnip mash.
Things went downhill at the main-course stage. Paying for your Sunday roast is usually a mistake; restaurant versions rarely live up to the home-cooked ideal, with its crunchy roasties straight from the tin, and meat carved so that everyone gets their favourite bit. In this case, the meat was served uniformly rare (we weren't asked how we wanted the beef cooked) and the same sticky, over-reduced jus appeared with both the beef and the lamb. And given that Cau had proved himself something of a wizard with root vegetables, the flabby roast potatoes and overcooked carrots were disappointing.
Puddings showed a return to form. An Irish-coffee cheesecake was served in the shape of a cappuccino cup, topped with a "froth" of whipped cream and sporting a handle made of tuile biscuit; a bit mad, but it tasted great. As did a chocolate fudge cake which inspired from its junior recipient an awestruck, "It's so rich and posh!" The same could be said of our fellow diners, who were very smart, in a blazery kind of way. The lounge tables bore mulitiple copies of just two periodicals: the Henley and Marlow edition of Totally Society and HC – The Home Counties magazine, which pretty much says it all.
"It's a bit Henley," was the damning verdict of my friend, who spent most of the meal comparing The Partridge Inn unfavourably with The Crooked Billet (see below), her beloved local. To hammer home her point, she resorted to rummaging among the logs in the (unlit) fire, surfacing with a triumphant cry of "I knew it! Gas!"
That tension between the rustic and the modern, the country inn and the smart restaurant, doesn't seem to have been fully resolved at The Partridge. Cau is obviously talented, and even in an area rich in excellent food pubs, there's a place for somewhere more sophisticated, which offers a more affordable alternative to Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons. But why pretend it's a pub? Even if it does have a beer garden, sorry, wine garden.
The polish of the food and setting is not matched by the service; the two waitresses on duty were sweet, but obviously overstretched and under-trained.
It pains me to give them a low rating, but judging from the frantic, unanswered calls of "Service!" that issued from the kitchen, I suspect the problem may already have been identified. If it's any consolation, at least I've given myself a lower rating. And if you knew why we had to ask for that mop, you would understand.
The Partridge Inn, 32 St Mary's Street, Wallingford, Oxfordshire (01491 825005)
Around £30 a head for three courses, before wine and service
Tipping policy: "No service charge for less than six people; otherwise service charge is 10 per cent discretionary. All the service charge goes to the staff, and all tips go to the staff"
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