Without Thomas Lord, there would be no Lord's cricket ground. He was a professional cricketer for Middlesex and Marylebone who, in 1787, bought seven acres of north London, when property prices were still very reasonable. It became Marylebone Cricket Club. When it was forced to move, it became Lord's Middle Ground – and when it moved to its current home in 1814, the name stuck. Lord retired from Lord's in 1830 and went to live in the Hampshire village of West Meon, where four of us came barrelling through the door of the pub named after him on a parky night in January.
There were regrettably few people there to enjoy the wonderfully comfortable old bar, with a vast log fire, wooden tables, candlelight and squishy sofa chairs. It was fabulously timeless. I felt that, any moment, a churl or varlet might approach us with a flagon of mead and ask if we'd heard about this Magna Carta thing everyone's talking about.
The dining area isn't so cosy; in fact it's quite Spartan. The main design statements are a huge wooden settle that rises up from the seating area like the throne of an Eastern potentate; and a huge modern clock set amid a sea of brickwork. Cricket memorabilia is all around: photographs, striped caps, cigarette cards from the 1930s, Vanity Fair drawings of Edwardian bowlers – and a portrait of Mr Lord, a bland-looking geezer you can't imagine being a very demon bowler.
The head chef, Fran Joyce, is a cheerleader for Hampshire cooking, and the menu promises all manner of chunky, crispy, nutty and fruity whatnots – terrific comfort food. We couldn't resist the venison and black pudding Scotch egg from the bar snacks menu; it was scrumptious, rough-textured, gutsily flavoured, runny-yolked. Among the starters, Portland crab stood out, the white crabmeat served with fishily dense brown crab custard, and the contrasting bite of kohlrabi remoulade. Celeriac soup was a little bland but voluptuously creamy.
I went for complexity: 'guinea fowl, curried dumplings & lentil stew, poached smoked duck egg, savoy, spring onion and cucumber mousse'. It sounded like a dish invented to get rid of things that had spent too long in the cupboard and vegetable rack. How could they possibly work together? The answer was, they didn't. The guinea fowl had been shredded like a Peking duck and was lost in the mass of under-seasoned cabbage. I found some dumplings, but with no trace of curry about them. The main event was a vast and wobbling shelled duck egg the size of a rugby ball. It wasn't smoked, it was barely cooked, and it spread itself like ectoplasm across my plate. Underdone egg with stew and mousse – who thought that was a good idea?
There's something faintly schizoid about the Thomas Lord's cooking. Sometimes it seems keen to offer simple pub grub, sometimes you feel the kitchen trying, in a frenzy of inclusiveness, to throw too much at the diner. The only meat dishes are steaks and burgers, but Angie's eight-ounce sirloin wasn't just grilled, it came slathered with a green gloop of herb butter. Fish pie with tiger prawns, scallops and mussel cream was more successful, the shellfish tightly al dente, the creamed potato just fine – but it didn't need to be served with toasted bread. My fillet of cod was another anthology of ingredients, flung together in haphazard prodigality: cod with burnt apple purée, hazelnuts, citrus caramelised onions, pressed potatoes, pork cheek, honey-roasted swede, sprouts and pancetta. Did you get all that? They served fish with apple sauce with blackened pork cheek thrown in for good measure. Why? And the sprouts and pancetta combo – had they been left over from Christmas lunch? The fish was actually pretty good – but it was lost in the blizzard of nine things on the plate struggling for salience.
Our waitress, Rosie, made up for a lot. Always encouraging and positive, she was amused by my bewilderment at the cascade of items before me. "We're very keen here on constructive criticism," she said with a smile, as I struggled with the honey and ginger panna cotta which, with a certain inevitability, came with liquorice jelly, candied almonds and gingerbread ice-cream. The panna cotta was smooth and creamy, but you had to delve to the bottom of the Kilner jar, past a kilo of the strongly flavoured ice-cream, to reach it. Chocolate and orange log with hazelnut ice-cream was fine, though eccentrically accessorised with tarragon purée.
I liked the couple of hours I spent at the Thomas Lord, but wished I could tell the kitchen: stop trying so hard, stop throwing everything in the larder at simple dishes, stop confusing the diner with random and unharmonious flavours. As Thomas Lord would tell you, you do better with a simple delivery than a mad explosion of yorkers, googlies, offspins, bouncers and wides.
High Street, West Meon, Hampshire (01730 829244). About £30 a head, before wine and serviceReuse content