To spend a weekend in this Dorset hotel is rather like going to visit some well-heeled country cousins: you expect hospitality rather than grovelling servitude. The house, (a Jacobean construction built by an ancestor of the present owners, the Prideaux-Brunes), seems entirely appropriate to its Hardyesque setting. Built of the local fudge-coloured stone, it seems to squat down and blend with its surroundings, rather than trying to draw attention to itself.
On arrival, you will be met not by armies of liveried footmen eager to whisk away your bags, but by a tweed-skirted housekeeper who, while quite happy to show you to your room, certainly doesn't intend to do herself an injury with your largest suitcase. The somewhat haphazard decor - the Manor has been untouched by the hand of the corporate interior designer - adds to the homely feel. Our bathroom sported large flowery patterned wallpaper, tiles of an unrelated colour and design, and yet another floor covering. The medicine cabinet looked like MFI circa 1973.
The distinct nip in the air was apparently due to the fact that the plumbing had broken down. It would hopefully be restored within an hour. We were assured that we could move to the converted barn if things did not improve; but in the event pipes soon rumbled and gurgled contentedly, and there was enough hot water to fill the more than ample bath, albeit with something that looked like stewed tea.
If your idea of service is to have the entire staff dance attendance on you all weekend then, here again, you will be disappointed. Room service is more a matter of negotiation than policy: a request for a couple of pre-dinner gin and tonics resulted in a jovial, "Well, I think we might run to that".
Plumber is, first and foremost, a culinary experience. While one Prideaux- Brune, Brian, works his magic in the kitchen, his brother, Richard, weaves his way among the expectant diners, dispensing menus, wine lists and good humour. He is out-classed only by his sidekick, Bertie, who wanders around the sitting-room, making sure everyone receives his attention in equal measure and watching the door for new arrivals. He should, you almost feel, be wearing black tie, except that black Labradors seldom do.
The menu is a three-course affair, with an optional fish course if you think you'll have room. Starters range from an aromatic, thick watercress soup, a subtle smoked trout pate wrapped in smoked salmon, a surprisingly light lobster lasagne, to stuffed, boned quail in filo pastry. The fish course, an escalope of salmon with cream and green peppercorns, was a little heavy as an intermediate fish course. Main courses are substantial and accompanied by a generous variety of fresh and crunchy vegetables - mange-touts, carrots, broccoli, and two types of potatoes. The guinea fowl was superbly complemented by its black cherry and cinnamon sauce, while medallions of beef with shallots were enough to make you forget about BSE. My favourite, though, was the roast barbary duck in orange sauce, served pink and abundantly flavoured.
A suitable interlude, and the puddings are towed in and drooled over. There is an excellent variety, and you are encouraged to sample as many as you can manage. Our strategy was to each order a small portion of two contrasting puddings, and to try each other's, thereby tasting eight in two days. Lemon and ginger crunch, was satisfyingly heavy and creamy and went well with the lighter hazelnut and apricot roulade. The Austrian cheesecake tasted almost savoury after the concentrated, dark richness of the chocolate truffle tourte. Strawberry mille feuilles was a crisp, flaky contrast with the smooth, fluffy and tangy passion-fruit mousse.
A grander establishment might have installed a swimming pool in order to allow patrons to work off the excess. But then that would be to forget that Plumber Manor is more a restaurant with bedrooms than a full-blown country house hotel. The result is friendlier and more intimate: a place where conviviality triumphs over corporate correctness.
Plumber Manor, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 2AF (01258 472507) Prices are from pounds 45 per person for bed and breakfastReuse content