Restaurants: The lady of the lake

The Auberge du Lac offers an intriguing crime story, creditable country house cooking and wine with everything. Photographs by Nicola Levinsky
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's probably easier to visit a disgraced aristocrat banged up an in open prison on an insurance rap than it is to find one's way to the Auberge du Lac.

The restaurant, in a house in the grounds of Brocket Hall, is open to any member of the public persistent and rich enough to find and afford it. We had driven around Hertfordshire, a county surprisingly bereft of luxury restaurants, off, over and under the M1, and onto a dark country road before we came across the first, wrong, entrance. The next, a shadowy driveway, was also barred by gates. We had to act fast, punching a code into the intercom so the gates could glide open before the automatic floodlight went out and plunged us back into darkness. I expected a Dobermen to leap out at any moment.

Across the lake, Brocket Hall looks like the golfers' hotel it has become since Lord Brocket had to leave home a couple of years ago. Cue for a brief, gratuitous reminder of how hubris can catch up with you. The third baron had turned the ancestral seat into a conference centre and accumulated classic cars and debts. He turned to crime, claiming pounds 4.5m on insurance for cars he'd dismantled, hidden and reported stolen. The beautiful, drug- dependent Cuban model he had married in Las Vegas 24 hours after meeting her, gave evidence against him. She now lives in Puerto Rico with their three children.

While he played out his jail sentence in a rock band called the Time Lords, Brocket leased his ancestral home as a hotel to a German businessman based in Hong Kong. This summer, in what must be one of the greatest near- misses for a publicity tie-in, he made a characteristically flamboyant exit from prison on a Harley Davidson only a fortnight after the restaurant opened.

If Lord Brocket were mine host, perhaps the Auberge du Lac would have been more graciously appointed. As it is, it's handicapped by a clientele that proves there's nothing glamorous about golf players, hideous carpets, a soundtrack of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, vast plates decorated with a crest and felis demulcta mitis (the College of Arms translates it as "a stroked cat is gentle"), and other features of restauration comedy. Except that the food is serious. It costs an arm and a leg, although I wasn't supposed to know that. I'm a lady, and ladies are given a menu without prices, a practice I thought went out with the flambe trolley. Not that trolleys are out of the picture here, either. There's one laden with liqueurs and another truly magnificent one of cheeses. Another saving grace is the wine list, with more than 20 by the glass.

And there's the cooking. Your pounds 38 (plus a 10 per cent service charge) buys little nibbles, followed by a cup of fabulous lobster cappuccino before the first of three redemptive courses and petits fours. Gateau of lobster was floppy for a cake but nice as mousse, wrapped in spinach leaves and with "subtle vanilla pod butter", which tasted more like cloves. Another mystery ingredient, sea hen eggs, speckled the sauce. A simpler salad of spring lettuce - endive, radicchio and other not notably spring- like leaves - concealed a rewarding combination of warm slices of boudin blanc and sweetbreads in rich, sweet port juices.

We skipped the intermediate fish course, saving ourselves pounds 7 and - given the richness of three courses - even greater discomfort afterwards.

Many of the sauces were attributed to an appellation, explaining, perhaps, what happens to leftover wine: corn-fed chicken stuffed with watercress mousse with risotto Macon cream; Brouilly sauce on duckling with black figs and braised fennel; and the Pouilly Fume cream with wonderfully tender, perfectly grilled, English (and it's relevant) veal, creamed celeriac in a pointy whirl, baby morels and, especially welcome for their home- grown quality, runner beans. Only a leathery sliced potato cake let it down.

The venison claimed a double dose of wine: marinated in Bardol, it had a sauce of claret jus and bitter couveture - a way of not scaring us off by calling it chocolate. The bitter sweetness was put to even better use in a very fine pudding of chocolate three ways: tart, sorbet and sauce. A strawberry sorbet on wild strawberry tart was also exceptionally good, not too sweet, perfectly smooth and intensely fruity. The choice between puddings and cheeses was almost a moral struggle; a cheeseboard of this stature and the waiter's justifiable pride in it, deserves support, but we came down on the side of the kitchen, with no regrets.

Auberge du Lac is hardly a steal at more than a ton for two, but it is about par for the golf-course ethos of country house dining

Auberge du Lac, Brocket Hall, Lemsford, Welwyn, Herts (01707 368888). Tue-Sun lunch, Tue-Sat dinner. Lunch, pounds 18.50 for three courses; dinner, pounds 38 for three courses, pounds 45 for four courses, pounds 55 for six courses.

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