Food: TV dinners
London medialand comes to Somerset. Photographs by Alexander Caminada
Saturday 01 May 1999
"In the Somerset countryside but not entirely of it. Go there to get away without leaving it all behind," says their copywriter, enigmatically and possibly ungrammatically. By which they mean that this may be an 18th- century house built of golden stone at the end of an avenue of trees, with its own chapel, but the bedrooms are furnished like the show flat of a top-of-the-range loft conversion.
If you think black leather Italian sofas have no place outside EC1, focaccia is a profanity, and that no billiard table should ever be covered in scarlet baize, keep on driving to one of the many other conventionally chintzy hotels which seem to be one of the West Country's main industries. If not, prepare to wake up in a 7ft-wide bed, shower, slip out of the sumptuous towelling dressing gown, smother yourself in organic unguents, dress in black and descend to the breakfast room for croissants, kippers and free- range eggs from the resident hens.
The breakfast room is panelled, nicotine-coloured, with shuttered windows overlooking the lake, and furnished with mismatched old chairs and tables. It is said to be based on Balducci's deli in New York. It features an igloo-like wood-fired oven used mainly for pizzas, and there are Kilner storage jars on the shelves above it. That's so typical of Babington's meritocratic appeal; anyone can appreciate it - if they've just come back from Manhattan.
A second restaurant opens mainly at weekends when it creams off the media- ish element, leaving the breakfast room for more chaotic family eating. We were booked in from Sunday to Wednesday on a half-board deal. Arriving late for dinner on the first day, the breakfast room had an air of abandonment after an afternoon invasion of families. We opted to wait until the end of our stay before putting on our reviewers' hats, when, as it turned out, we were evacuated to the smarter weekend restaurant while the breakfast room's wood-fired oven was being repaired.
The dining room is so elemental, so artfully natural, it's the urbanite's fantasy of how the country should be: tables of rough-hewn planks laid with large pewter plates, suede cushions on the bobbly blue-fabric-covered banquette, a wall entirely composed of stacked logs, flagstone floors, curtains made of boiled grey woollen army blankets.
A few, noticeably the nicest, of the staff are local; some of the others, who were more familiar than friendly, were keen to emphasise they are not from around here. One rather testily told us she didn't know where the baby alarms were kept because, "I've just come down from London," and looked as if she wished she were back there. The chef comes from Alastair Little in London but seems to appreciate the country environment more, evidenced by the kitchen's ingenious ingredient-driven merry-go-round of menus. The dishes would be as at home in town, but are all the better and more relevant for the freshness of produce, which you can see growing in the garden.
During the course of our stay, the antipasto plate became a favourite, with a rotating selection of bits and pieces that included roast peppers, a fluffy chicken liver parfait, and an excellent creamy salt-cod terrine with a core of poached salmon and an outer wrapping of Savoy cabbage (giving it the pink, white and green colour scheme of Neapolitan ice cream). Other dishes: tomato and fennel soup, Caesar salad without anchovies, roast brill with ratatouille, pork with roast squash. Clubby grub, not sloppy, fiddly or striving for subtlety, but invariably great results. In the brochure babble, "everything to taste of itself, often fresh from the garden. The cloches stay outside".
As we'd enjoyed everything we'd eaten so far, the change of role to reviewers on our last night was neither deceitful nor taxing - we just had to think harder about why we liked what was placed in front of us.
Cod lightly salted and still succulent inside, came with rocket and borlotti beans, an assembly of ingredients that rubbed along all right together. Even better, a chickpea and seafood broth, which was simply, fabulously good, a perfect balance of earth 'n' surf.
Calf's liver, sliced, with baby beets, new potatoes and almost-caramelised onions was a rustic-sized portion in a reduced sauce of more finesse than its appearance suggested. The vegetables tasted marvellously as if they'd been grubbed up from the kitchen garden shortly beforehand. A mashed potato side-dish, meanwhile, had an overdose of nutmeg, but spindly broccoli, also home-grown, served with a gremolata garnish, was great. Cock-a-leekie, a large piece of free-rangey chicken with leeks, broth and a prune or two was also hearty but not heavy-going.
They don't really pull out the stops for dessert. Lemon posset with cream on top served in a wine glass looked from afar like an Irish coffee. I have an aversion to desserts in a glass; my man thought it sounded like something produced by a baby after a surfeit of citric fruit. "It's lemon mousse," the waitress reassured. It was all right.
We'd stuck ourselves at the far end of the restaurant away from the hearty local businessmen and their tennis-playing wives (a different breed from the London weekend contingent) and this seemed to test the patience of the waiter more than usual. "Have you forgotten our wine?" we asked, meekly. "Yes I have," he said.
Service may not always impart the same sense of occasion as the prices - dinner's around pounds 25 to pounds 30 a head without drink - but it is the experience of actually staying at Babington House which makes it so good. The food here cannot beat laying a weary head on a goose-feather pillow in one of the knock-out bedrooms, the first in a British hotel to have digital TV with 200 channels, screened on a cool-green Philips widescreen television. A recipe for success, as a copywriter might say
Babington House, Babington, near Frome, Somerset (01373 812266). Daily lunch and dinner, residents and members. Non-members check availability first. Lunch around pounds 15, dinner pounds 30 without wine. All credit cards. Wheelchair access.
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