The Old Passage Inn overlooks the lowest crossing point on the River Severn - a narrow throat of fast-flowing water where the grand, green hills converge. It's a beautiful spot, marked "PH" on my Ordnance Survey map. But The Old Passage Inn isn't a Public House any more. Even though The Publican voted it the Best Seafood Public House of 2003. It's a restaurant now - a restaurant with one hell of a view.
Posted by the front door is a sign asking you to turn off your mobile phone. And another sign asking you to take off your walking boots. As I sat down at our table, and noticed the sickly pallor of our fellow diners, I felt like writing a sign of my own. "The Sylvania Spot Gro R-30 lighting system might be good for greenhouse seedlings. But not for diners in a restaurant. Please note."
I apologised to our waitress for the fact that Neris and I were early. We were then left, unfed and unwatered, for 25 minutes. It felt like punishment. But it did give us time to read the menu - forwards and backwards. I even started making anagrams out of the plats du jour. A menu as descriptive as this (including "beer-battered Cornish day-boat haddock") could have kept me busy for hours.
The tables were too close together. That's when I remembered what the lady had said to me on the phone when I booked. "You are lucky," she said. "We can fit you in at 7.45pm." I didn't realise she was talking literally. But it all started to make sense. The Old Passage Inn - Best Seafood Public House of 2003 - has started to get a bit too big for its boots.
After the assiette of home walnut-smoked Scottish salmon with avruga caviar and lemon (£7.50), I could understand why. In fish smoking - as in wine - oak gives a rather obvious flavour. Walnut is a pleasant change. And the fish had a wonderful buttery quality. Avruga is made from herring roe. It's more smoky and lemony than the real thing, with a less satisfying fish flavour. But you can see why restaurants favour it - it doesn't bleed colour like cheap lumpfish roe, and it's less than one-tenth of the price of the good stuff. So restaurants can be more generous, and then claim they're doing it to save the sturgeon. But this tiny pile of eggs was little more than a garnish.
The fish soup with croutons, Gruyère and saffron mayonnaise (£6.10) looked like a bouillabaisse. But without rascasse, the ugliest fish in the world. Rascasse isn't easy to find off the British coast but, according to a chef I met in Nice, "a bouillabaisse without la rascasse is like a watch without a mainspring". Evidently he hasn't heard of digital watches. But let's not spoil his simile.
A good bouillabaisse uses every bit of the fish - from the stomach to the backbone - which can make the end product taste bitter. But this soup was just bitter enough. And, when the mayonnaise was stirred in, it created a seductive brick-red streak. We thoroughly stained the tablecloth with it. In Nice, chefs consider this an honour.
The pan-fried razor clams with almond, ginger and coriander butter seemed good value at £6.50. Razor clams are difficult to catch, and easily lost in heavy surf and bulky waders. So I should have been more grateful when they arrived at our table. But they looked like diseased liver flukes, their squid-like taste wasn't compensation enough, and to make matters worse, they arrived lukewarm.
We stuck with fish as main courses. After all, Neris was intrigued by the "poached rolled Dover Sole fillets filled with salmon and crayfish mouse" (£16). I opted to be official taster. There was no topnote of mouse. But there was no mousse either. Mousse means "froth served in a mould", and this was more of a paste. Either way, the dish was lukewarm too.
Like the turbot. At the height of the season, the turbot yields firm, snow-white flesh. But this isn't the height of the season. Right now, the female is busy laying 15 million eggs, and her flesh has become watery. I decided to chance it, and I'm glad I did. The poached turbot on a bed of buttered spinach with English asparagus, broad beans and saffron caviar sauce (£18.50) was a delicate match of flavour and texture.
As Alain Ducasse once said: "Turbot without genius is better than genius without turbot." And I think he's right - the fish still tasted wonderful - but would have been more wonderful still, if it had been warm. God decided that the turbot would swim on its side because it refused to participate in the whole loaves-and-fishes episode. Maybe, verily, He still hasn't finished getting His own back.
The Old Passage Inn aims to treat the best ingredients simply. Which it does, to a point. But there are other things the management might like to consider. Like how to serve fewer covers, and concentrate on getting food to the table while it's still hot. I would like to hang a sign round the kitchen door-knob saying "It was only an award from The Publican, you know."
Be humble. God might be watching.
The Old Passage Inn, Passage Road, Arlingham, Gloucestershire (01452 740547). Visit www.visitheartofengland.com
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