Method in their madness

They may be batty, but they run a fine country pub; The White Horse Inn may be the last restaurant in Britain where, waiting at your table, you find small, carefully-trimmed slices of brown bread and butter Photograph by Madeleine Waller
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In a worryingly cute development, The 1996 Good Food Guide has started to dole out special little badges signposting eccentricity. It is a good thing that the White Horse Inn at Chilgrove didn't get one, for like true eccentrics, the people who run the place think themselves completely normal. Yet this threesome - Barry and Dorothea Phillips, and the chef, Neil Rusbridger - are about as normal as a good day for John Major. Granted there is a trace of knowing whimsy when Mr Rusbridger explains the painting of a cat on their sign: "The woman who did it couldn't paint a horse to save herself, but was rather good at cats."

The inn is set in almost ridiculously beautiful countryside; hell, to resort to archaic restaurant-review speak, it is tucked away, it positively nestles, in the rolling hills of the South Downs of West Sussex. A 30-year-old wisteria clambers over the front of the building. There are picnic tables on a sun-soaked lawn for those who want to use the place as a pub.

We ate inside, along with a respectable selection of old colonels and local dowagers. And we drank from a wine list that can produce almost any bottle you care to name, including a 1959 Lynch-Bages, a Pauillac, a claret from the Haut-Medoc. The most precious of these bottles, I would guess, have been aged by the Phillips's from the time they set up shop here 25 years ago. Mr Phillips is the rake thin chap who welcomes guests so warmly, making nervous jokes in a lugubrious voice. In years past, he would have shot the game listed on the menu. Now it is mainly local friends who bag the partridges and his energy goes into running the dining room, buying wines, and staging curious little promotions. Mrs Phillips is the merry Dutch lady with the perfect English and spangly-framed spectacles. Friends call her Dot.

The place works in timeless English country fashion: one can eat lightly in the bar, or more formally in the restaurant. The restaurant meals begin as gentle processions, drinks are ordered, salty peanuts nibbled and menus perused in the bar, then the eating is done in a low-ceilinged dining room. Great care is taken in the choice of wine glasses, which are delicate and perfectly shaped. Crockery is simpler, homier and suits the old-fashioned quality of much of the cooking.

For example, the White Horse Inn may be the last restaurant in Britain where, waiting at your table, you find small, carefully-trimmed slices of brown bread and butter, quaint little jobs that once must have been a staple of teas for the vicar. There were bread rolls, good ones too, but the pleasure at seeing and eating this tea bread again was almost dreamily comforting. Nostalgia aside, its presence was a good sign for another reason: whoever puts it there is no fashion victim.

The menu is a chaotic document, with the set price menu of pounds 17.50 for three courses scribbled in, as an afterthought, it seems, in an otherwise printed list. The left-hand side is almost pure afterthought. Here one finds a series of yellow sticky office reminders, each bearing an announcement of a daily special, usually with a price supplement. Wild mushroom soup: pounds 2.50 extra. Local partridge: pounds 3.50 extra. Scallops: pounds 2.50 extra.

We chose mainly from the specials, and ate very well indeed. The wild mushroom soup comes creamed, and probably bulked up with button mushrooms. That said, it was redolent of ceps and came alive with a squirt of lemon juice. Scallops were perfect as they came: plump, exactly cooked specimens with excellent coral and a good rasher of bacon. Nab a bit of each - scallop, coral and bacon - on a fork, eat them in a mouthful, then try to find any other dish, fancy or plain, that tastes better.

Mrs Phillips gladly agreed to serve a mildly expanded form of a starter - black pudding salad - as a main course. This produced several slices of decent black pudding with two perfect poached eggs, bacon and well- dressed salad leaves. The latter involved plenty of herbs, notably chervil. This was, again, my idea of perfect food. Partridge with bread sauce and all the trimmings would have been nothing special if food served just right were not so exceptional.

Which is not to say the cooking at the White Horse is altogether traditional. Strangely, there are some rather scary sounding numbers on the printed side of the menu, such as spinach and sun-dried tomato gnocchi. Some are just in Seventies fancy dress, say grilled calf's liver served on a sauce of creamed leeks flavoured with green chartreuse.

If Mr Rusbridger is deft with savouries, he is possibly less interested in puddings. The sticky toffee pudding was strangely rubberised. Much better was a blueberry strudel, which was a sort of sweet, flaky heaven, melting apples lending back-up to the explosive, tart berries.

Does the White Horse sound like perfect weekend away material? Well, Mr Rusbridger has just opened a bed and breakfast operation in a converted farm building, Forge Cottage, nearby. The rooms are chic enough to figure in Elle Decoration, but romantic enough for historically-minded Americans. Accommodation is pounds 35 per person, per night. Next time I go, I want the ground floor room, the one with its own entrance to the garden, perfect for dog owners, and for stumbling in after a night guessing at the mystery wine. This the White Horse serves free to those who name its country of origin and grape type. Those who don't know what it is, but like the way it tastes, pay pounds 17.50 a bottle

The White Horse Inn, High Street, Chilgrove, West Sussex (01243-535219). Open for lunch and dinner Tue-Sat, 12-2 and 7-9.30pm. Light bar meals from about pounds 10, restaurant about pounds 30 (more for those who drink vintage burgundies or clarets). Set 3-course lunch menu, pounds 17.50; set bar menu, lunch and evening, pounds 12.50; set 4-course evening meal, pounds 23. Reservations advisable. Vegetarian meals. Unsuitable for small children. Major credit cards, except Amex