Playing safe

PR not pizzazz in West Sussex
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Angel Hotel, North Street, Midhurst, West Sussex (01730-812421). Open daily lunch 12noon-2.30pm; dinner 6.30-10pm in bar-brasserie, 7-9.30pm in dining room. Vegetarian meals. Lunch pounds 20-pounds 30 in bar-brasserie, dinner pounds 25-pounds 35. Major credit cards. Smoking not encouraged

Public relations people used to be simply excuse-makers employed by big, horrible companies that did unforgivable things, such as discharge DDT into the Chesapeake Bay, or spill thousands of tonnes of oil around the Shetlands. Now everything, puny or global, seems to have a PR company gabbling away on its behalf: regional theatres, health authorities, even handsome old hotels on the Sussex Downs.

The Angel Hotel at Midhurst has one, though quite why is unclear to me. It seems unlikely that the place needs more trade. The "brasserie", which looks more like a tastefully upmarket coffee shop, was packed during a recent Friday lunch, and its kitchen was out of pork knuckle terrine with beetroot relish by 1.30pm, and had served its last sticky toffee pudding an hour later. The crowd was mainly tweedy types who had the agreeable effect of making a 40-year-old feel like a kid, and who spoke with a well- bred hush to their voices. Diners here succumb to fervour only in exceptional circumstances, such as the moment when the lady next to me exclaimed, "I like Princess Anne. She should be King!"

I cannot describe the hotel's grander Cowdray Room restaurant. I understand its food is similar to the brasserie's, but a mite more luxury is laid on, perhaps for polo enthusiasts from nearby Cowdray Park.

So why a PR? Such a beast is hardly required to target that small set of people who whoop around swinging mallets from atop galloping ponies. It could be for staff morale, or to make the Angel look juicy for some sort of business adventure. Perhaps it is just the done thing according to new hospitality industry wisdom. Whatever the reason, there are enough unique selling points here to keep a half-resourceful PR busy: for starters, the Angel is independently owned, a chain of one. This merits stressing in print, because it is not immediately obvious. The Angel's fine old structure looks, from the inside, as if the Thistle Group might have decorated it - perfectly respectable and a little dull. You have to look closely for the singular touches, such as salt and pepper grinders set out on the tables. A chain would not rate fresh seasoning above the inevitability of losing a few of these to chignon- wearing kleptomaniacs.

The cooking, too, means to be distinctive. Every dish that leaves the kitchen looks impressive, as if a chef in monogrammed whites has been a-tinkering. According to the Angel Hotel's publicist, the chef here started in a Roux-owned restaurant in London, then worked his way around France before returning to Britain and jobs here and there as sous-chef. Early on, he worked with Rowley Leigh, and his admiration for Mr Leigh's menus at Kensington Place is vivid here in West Sussex. There is bresaola, salmon with tapenade crust, cod with pancetta, red cabbage confit. Deftly he remembers his locals, and includes the likes of grapefruit salad starters.

The standard of cooking is entirely professional, and prompted uncharacteristic bursts of pleasure from diners at neighbouring tables. Here I am at a loss, for my polite response to this food is to fall silent. For all its attractive presentation I found it strangely soulless, as if the chef has no strong feelings about it; as if he doesn't eat it himself. A large platter with a small pile of fried calamari, a wedge of lemon and a splodge of red chilli sauce looked odd. The plate was too big. The calamari were fresh tasting, with just the right bite, the batter crisp and light. Yet the red stuff was vaguely filthy: gooey and sweetish, like some bottled mock Hawaiian sauce.

A main course of grilled chicken came perfectly cooked, partially boned and tasting of not much. A leaf of bruised basil went black atop it, and it was bedded in a "ratatouille" that would have been sneered off the plate in Provence. Everything had been diced - tomato, courgettes, peppers - to an equal size and cooked to an equal taste. A raw tomato concasse was ratatouille in terms of ingredients, but lacked the pungent herbs, the rich depth of onions sweated to molten sweetness, the peppers roast to melting, and quickly fried courgettes. Side orders of vegetables were generous, if a shade overwrought. Carrot was pureed then made into shapes; mash came in balls, coated with almonds and fried; broccoli florets were battered and fried.

The long wine list is mainly of use to those who buy by the bottle. By the glass, a Hungarian chardonnay made to taste as if it had come from Australia was fine.

Desserts are expensive. A creme brulee with banana at the bottom of it cost pounds 5. It would have been fine at pounds 3.50 with more creme and no banana.

My three-course meal with one glass of wine, several glasses of water and a coffee cost pounds 26.95. I paid it with a murmur and left thinking, PR or no PR, the Angel at Midhurst was so blandly polite and vaguely expensive as to be a difficult place to peg. But the smiling lady who did the greeting and presented the bill was very nice