Happy eater

A pleasing discovery on the edge of the Peak District; I had enjoyed three blisteringly good courses, in all of which the evidently sound technique was at the service of good taste and judgement. The wine list is first rate, too Photograph by John Angerson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is a while since I have eaten in such a happy restaurant as Old Beams. I feel the need to dispel two concerns immediately. Firstly, it was not forced jollity, but entirely relaxed goodwill, and secondly it is not themed with cosmetic beams, but an 18th-century building beside the A523, between Leek and Ashbourne on the edge of the Peak District. The Wallises took over the neglected property in 1980, built a conservatory a few years later, and now preside over a young kitchen team that includes their son, turning out some extremely fine food.

The tiny, well kept garden at the front is echoed by a gravel patio and patch of grass at the back, where drinks are served in fine weather. Inside is an open fireplace, big floral display, low ceiling and regulation beams. I counted three nooks and two crannies, although there may have been more, and ate in the conservatory.

Nigel Wallis did his apprenticeship at the Savoy and then worked in industrial catering - not, at first sight, the best leg up. But in the late Seventies, business entertainment budgets began to tighten, plus he wasn't seeing much of his wife, who was managing a restaurant in Essex. So Old Beams was their joint escape.

The cooking is founded on classic French principles and techniques, makes good use of pasta, and goes in for diverting dishes of rabbit and pigeon alongside more usual poussin or roast loin of lamb.

What impressed me about a hot souffle of scallop and lobster was that it was not really a souffle, at Ieast not a flour-based one. lt was more like a free-standing hot mousse, a delightful texture, wonderfully light, smooth and gently wobbly, tasting brilliantly of shellfish with a few tiny nuggets of lobster and scallop dotted throughout, delicate yet distinct. Around it were more tiny shellfish nuggets and some diced tomato flesh, in a yellow saffron-tasting oil. This was a simple dish, though tricky to make, and was perfectly executed.

One way to juice a good chef is to ask what on the plate could be discarded, without detracting from the dish as a whole. In the best cases there is very little. The tart of young pigeon was not strictly a tart and although it added a welcome bit of crunch, I might have lived without the pastry case, since it was submerged at the bottom of a pile of mashed potato and spinach and an entire deconstruted pigeon - two bloody breasts and the corresponding barely cooked legs - that had been lightly roasted, all crowned by a single raviolo.

The pigeon was wonderfully tasty, and so tender that I didn't need a serrated knife. It had been carefully prepared, the sinews removed from the legs so I could gnaw at the bones to remove every scrap of flesh. It came with excellent wild mushrooms and sweet roasted shallots, in a well judged stock and Madeira sauce: not too reduced or sticky, and just the right amount to moisten the plateful. The raviolo, filled with more wild mushrooms and something gamey (maybe pigeon liver), added a whole other dimension to the dish.

The menu changes whenever Nigel Wallis gets fed up with it - a decision no doubt helped by the seasons, though glazed mango and banana with Indian ice cream must be more or less immune from seasonal change. Details of this were spot-on, from the wafer-thin layer of caramelised sugar on top of each slice of fruit to the central scoop of creamy cardamom-flavoured ice cream, to the dark toffeeish sauce which made it a bit rich but was perfectly at home with the other components.

I had enjoyed three blisteringly good courses, in all of which the evidently sound technique was at the service of good taste and judgement. The wine list is first rate, too. My meal cost pounds 35, plus a half bottle of Zindt- Humbrecht's Tokay Pinot-Gris at pounds 14.95, and a bottle of Hildon water at pounds 1.95, total pounds 51.90. With no service charge on top, I consider it a happy discovery

Old Beams, Waterhouses, Staffordshire (01538-308254). Open Tues to Fri and Sun for lunch 12 to 2; Tues to Sat dinner 7 to 9. 30. Set lunch pounds I2 (2 courses) to pounds l8.50 (3 courses plus coffee); set dinner Tues to Fri pounds 20 and Tues to Sat pounds 35. Major credit cards

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