Undershaw Restaurant & Hotel, Surrey

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I resolved to give up cigarettes at New Year. I took up a pipe - a fat-bowled thing - but my wife didn't like it. Apparently I reminded her of her grandfather. And I smelt. It didn't help that I also developed Smoker's Palate (inflamed salivary glands and reddish papules, which aren't good for a restaurant critic), so I decided to give it up altogether. I did, however, decide to allow myself one last briar. To dine at Undershaw without a pipe would be unseemly.

I resolved to give up cigarettes at New Year. I took up a pipe - a fat-bowled thing - but my wife didn't like it. Apparently I reminded her of her grandfather. And I smelt. It didn't help that I also developed Smoker's Palate (inflamed salivary glands and reddish papules, which aren't good for a restaurant critic), so I decided to give it up altogether. I did, however, decide to allow myself one last briar. To dine at Undershaw without a pipe would be unseemly.

That's because Undershaw was built by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes - the world's greatest detective, and its favourite pipe smoker. The Arts and Crafts house, built of red brick and tile, was at the end of a steep drive under a hanging wood. On a wet, foggy night, it was easy to imagine the place with gas lamps at the window, and a huddle of hansom cabs outside. What more atmospheric setting for my last bowl of light-matured Virginias?

Undershaw looks down the Nutcombe Valley and onto the South Downs. There are heavy rhododendron bushes banked on either side of the lawn. But rhododendrons don't flower in winter, and, with overgrown thicket and untended borders, the outside was a dismal sight. So, to be honest, was the inside. But it all made sense, knowing that the proprietor was Peter Ilic, a restaurateur with a reputation for good food at affordable prices. At Undershaw, he's chosen to do it on the cheap.

The original doors were designed to open on the push-pull principle (experts on door furniture will know this principle well) so that Conan Doyle's wife, who suffered from arthritis, didn't have to turn any handles. But, otherwise, the original features have long since gone. On every table there was bread in a plastic basket with a paper napkin over it to keep off the flies. The crockery was from Babe Ruth's, the baseball theme restaurant. I couldn't help wondering if the ingredients were from a liquidation sale too.

The menu was distinctive, and not just because of the seven different fonts used in its production. It was distinctive because of the prices. Starters were £2.95 (£1.75 if ordered before 7pm), and main courses were £7.95. You don't expect a hot meal for that sort of money in Surrey. Especially not a hot meal such as pheasant with savoy cabbage and cassis sauce. Or fillet of sea bass, imam bayaldi and tomato vinaigrette. And you certainly don't expect to get your chips fried in goose fat.

The choux de crabe were enormous. Sturdy, and rich with eggs (which provide most of the leavening and some of the structure), choux pastry is the hot-blooded doughboy of patisserie. When piped or spooned into little mounds, and baked, it balloons to three times its size, forming crisp, hollow puffs that beg to be stuffed. This choux wasn't crisp, it was doughy, with the taste of brioche. I, however, come from the rough end of Chalfont St Peter, and I rather liked it.

The goats cheese terrine had a good, concentrated flavour and worked well with walnut toast and a small beetroot salad. But the fish cake, with its tomato and chili salsa, was less successful. It was like eating a "vegetarian alternative". A fishless fishcake, where salt was the only recognisable taste. The smoked chicken in filo pastry also fell flat. I couldn't identify the chicken as smoked. I couldn't even identify it as chicken; it seemed to be more of a salty slurry. And the thin tissues of filo had stuck together.

We were subjected to REO Speedwagon at a volume similar to, well, an ice rink. The stereo effect reminded me of my old music centre - the vocals out of one speaker and the instrumentation out of the other. It made "Keep On Loving You" even harder to listen to. Maybe the volume explained why there was no chit-chat from the Eastern European waiters. They were rough men, who looked like soldiers who were demob unhappy.

They arrived with my wife's main course - breast of free-range chicken, lentil chorizo, cauliflower veloute - while she was in the toilet. Take it back? Not a bit of it. These boys were used to the discipline of a field kitchen. Would we like wine? By the time I picked up the wine list, the waiters had gone. I had also wanted to point out that "lentil chorizo" doesn't exist, and that they should proof-read their menus more closely next time. But I didn't. I'm not trained in unarmed combat.

The jus didn't combine well with the velouté. And there were too many flavours on the plate. My breast of duck was too rare, and, like the chicken, not properly hot. It was as if the entire contents of the Undershaw kitchen was being warmed over in a hostess trolley. The red cabbage that accompanied my duck had been braised in too much honey and ginger, leaving it sickly sweet, and without any of its distinctive bitterness. I called for the desserts menu.

The fromage du jour was Brie. Or "French Brie" as the waiter called it. A necessary detail, I would imagine, in a place that would serve Icelandic Brie if the margins were any better. The menu said that Undershaw accepts "cheques up to the card limit, gold watches and pearls". From the look of the man on the till, I'm not sure this was a joke.

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