In search of a Valentine's treat, Terry Durack finds a real heartbreaker

For some, it's all about candlelight. For others, it's a charming location, a sumptuous dining-room, or the thrill of a celebrity chef. This year, with Valentine's Day looming, I seem to have all the romantic bases covered.

The Montagu Arms is a character-laden 200-year-old country retreat in the New Forest, a natural beauty spot with grazing deer, ponies and even pigs. I check it out on the internet ( www.montagu and it looks charming. The large, formal Terrace restaurant is panelled in wood, its widely spaced tables clothed with linen and lit by candlelight, its chairs covered with tapestry, its views of terraced gardens and tinkling fountains.

But the real reason I book a room (£159) and a table (£39pp) is that last May, the Montagu Arms appointed Shaun Hill, the revered chef/patron of Ludlow's now defunct, Michelin-starred Merchant House, as director of cooking.

What's not to love, indeed. But the course of true love never did run smooth, as we know. Our bedroom is small, with a small bed, and a small bath. So my amour and I dress to the nines and go looking for an aperitif in the cosy bar, lined with volumes of Shakespeare and Dickens. There is a startled young man behind the bar and an odd damp smell in the air, but we manage to get a drink out of him that he has heard of. The soda water, however, is as flat as the atmosphere.

Another, equally diffident, member of staff appears with a tray of substantial appetisers. Menus are brought, and I am charmed by their brevity. There are just five starters and five main courses, running from the vaguely Asian (steamed sea bass with Oriental spice, and seared scallops and coriander sauce) to the bullishly British (smoked eel with baby leeks and horseradish cream, and roast partridge with Savoy cabbage, chestnuts and bacon). It is not a modern menu by any means, but nor is it unnecessarily provincial.

The European concept of ordering one's meal over an aperitif is a fine one - in Europe. Here, it seems to mean that your first courses arrive at the table about the same time that you do, only for your wine to take another 10 minutes.

The food is not immediately exciting. A small dish of scallops with lentils and coriander has a kept-warm air about it, the scallops waxy and firm, while the spiced lentils are quite lemony.

Vincisgrassi, a hearty offal-fuelled lasagne from Italy's Le Marche region, is realised here in a more elegant, individual version; the finely rolled pasta interleaved with a juicy porcini and prosciutto filling. It's good but it's not vincisgrassi, lacking the sweet depth of offal.

And I truly dislike the museum-quality dining-room, now that I see it in the flesh. It is brown, the lighting is squintingly flat and dull, and two tables are occupied by single men, one working on his laptop throughout his meal. The waiters wear white gloves, which is disconcerting. Is there a local hygiene issue I don't know about? The plague of Beaulieu, perhaps? Not even Hampshire-born film director Ken Russell and his loud and lively guests at the next table can break the ice that hangs from the ceiling.

Next, a rack of lamb with a pistachio crust is overcooked, its crust damp. A smear of parsnip purée and baby sprouts are well-chosen, but cannot raise it above Sunday lunch at Auntie May's. Being in the New Forest, I order the saddle of venison with Jabron (gratin) potatoes and Armagnac-soaked sultanas. The meat is not overly gamey, cooked pink with a nice, bright, upfront flavour and livery texture, although an overly sticky rich and sweet jus brings it down. A rich, lightly spicy Ausario Dolcetto d'Alba 2004 (£28) brings it up again.

To end, a fig and pine-nut tart is as dense and nutty as an Elizabethan sweetmeat, served with a dollop of mascarpone; while petits fours of little raspberry tarts, freshly made nougat, and dusted logs of chocolate truffle are all good.

The Montagu Arms is no better and no worse than thousands of similar establishments throughout Britain. That's what is so depressing. It's all so stiff and formal and pretending to be top of the tree when, in fact, it is all amateur service, standard-issue food and pretentious formality, with everything done by rote.

I am not too surprised when I hear that Shaun Hill is not in the kitchen tonight. Mr Hill was something of an oddity at Merchant House in that he ran a very small and very personal restaurant in which he was the sole cook. People loved the place with a passion. But there seems little point appointing such a hands-on chef as a hands-off-and-on "director of cookery" if directing is not what he excels at, and if the food that comes out of the kitchen is dull, one-dimensional and over-cooked by someone else.

In fact, there's no great love at the Montagu Arms that I can see - nobody who loves their job, nobody who loves cooking, and nobody who really loves feeding people. It breaks my heart. s


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 Terrace Restaurant at the Montagu Arms Beaulieu, New Forest, Hampshire, tel: 01590 612 324

Lunch and dinner daily; £39 per person for dinner, plus wine and service

Second helpings: More romantic restaurants

Thackeray's 85 London Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, tel: 01892 511 921 The fact that William Makepeace Thackeray once lived here is romantic enough. Adding to the effect are flickering candles on the wooden stairs, exotically themed private rooms, and date-worthy dishes such as Dorset crab with avocado.

Pink Geranium 25 Station Road, Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, tel: 01763 260 215 Once voted the prettiest restaurant in East Anglia, this converted 16th-century cottage is a magnet for the romantically inclined. The modern European menu runs from chicken liver parfait to west coast turbot with potato rosti.

Momo 25 Heddon Street, London W1, tel: 020 7434 4040 If your idea of romance is lounging about on cushions in muted candlelight while being serenaded by sinewy, rhythmic Moroccan music (and, of course, it is), then this is your sort of place. Add a steamy couscous and he/she can't help but love it - and you.

Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at