restaurants: Three's a crowd

Dining in the smallest restaurant in Great Gonerby; Harry's Place is not the egg 'n' chips caff it may sound, but a well-rehearsed and choreographed operation

A brass plaque beside the front door tells you this is the right house, and gives the telephone number. You have to book at Harry's Place. Opposite the Great Gonerby Social Club, just north of Grantham, it must be one of the smallest restaurants in Britain, working from a tiny but comfortable front room with three tables, just enough space for ten people if the numbers fall right.

Harry's Place is not the egg 'n' chips caff it may sound, but a well- rehearsed and choreographed operation. Apart from the dark pink walls, everything else seems to be made of pine, but the mix of ages and colours of wood, from stripped doors to lacquered wicker chairs, prevents it from feeling even faintly Norwegian.

Why it isn't called "Caroline's Place" I don't know. She is all you see of the Hallam partnership until at the very end, like Hercule Poirot unmasking the man responsible for all the dead bodies, Caroline produces Harry Hallam out of a hat - or rather in a hat, which he wears to keep his neat ponytail out of the way. With a name like his, you are just grateful he isn't running a Japanese restaurant.

Two of us ate the entire menu, a feat made possible by the choice of only two items at each of the three courses. After seven years here, the Hallams have arranged things to fit their own gentle pace. Harry cooks to order, and very carefully, with little to distract him. Caroline has time to pour the wine and get on first-name terms. They keep a diary of who eats what, so they can offer old favourites or a new dish to regulars.

The first thing that strikes you about the food is that Harry is something of a baker. Two small, puff pastry tartlets arrive hot, filled with sweet tomato, black olive, mild cheese and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. A basket of rough brown wholemeal bread follows. Then the first course: a light pastry base containing a poached egg, with scattered sweetcorn kernels and a generous ladling of hollandaise sauce, glazed under the grill. It is the pastry, as thin as filo but with the soft, buttery richness of puff, that lifts this dish to another plane.

The second thing that strikes is the variety of leaves - purslane and sweet cicely among them - in accompanying salads, and the amazing flavour of the herbs. Marjoram, basil, chervil, parsley, dill, coriander leaf and others are sprinkled over the nibbly tartlets and over the asparagus, green beans, baby sweetcorn and tender young broad beans that come with the main courses. The Hallams don't have a herb garden, but buy them from a specialist a few miles down the road at Thistleton, in what must be industrial quantities.

Harry also seems to have rather a sweet tooth. One of our main courses was a large fillet of wild River Dee salmon, sauteed and served with a Sauternes sauce. Even sweeter was the orange-flavoured Cumberland sauce that accompanied a first course of sauteed chicken livers, set in a sherry-and-black-pepper jelly and served chilled.

The other main course was a thick, perfectly judged pink fillet of tasty Wiltshire beef - not just any old bull, but a Charolais whose history and feeding Harry knows in detail - topped with a whipped horseradish-and-herb butter. By the time you added the effect of the flavoured butter to the herbs in the vegetables, and compounded it with the cumin and pepper in the sliced sauteed potatoes, a lot of flavours were competing for attention, although the beef still came through.

Hot rhubarb souffle, just cooked and very moist, was a fruity version, while the caramel mousse brulee, although sounding as if designed by a committee, was brilliant, a combination of two or three classic ideas - runny caramel in the bottom of the ramekin dish, ethereally light vanilla- flavoured mousse, and a topping of icing sugar that had been crossed with a hot skewer until the grid pattern had become gently crunchy. It is rare to find anybody improving on a standard of the repertoire, but Harry's ingenuity does just that. There are cheeses, too, which we couldn't manage.

The wine list is very short, rather expensive, and disappointingly low on half bottles, although a Montagny and a Fleurie are available by the glass. Water comes free all evening

Jim Ainsworth is editor of the Good Food Guide

Emily Green is away

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