Value for money is, of course, very desirable. One of the dangers of being a restaurant reviewer, however, or, for that matter, of having an expense account, is that price does not always count as much as it should. It is amazing how much easier it is to spend someone else's pounds 100 on a meal. It has been 18 months to the week since I wrote my first restaurant review, and, looking back, probably the worst-value if not quite the most expensive meal I have eaten was a lunch at the Dorchester's Grill Room: pounds 50 a head for a green salad, an almost entirely fishless fish pie, ginger cake and half a bottle of ordinary wine, although the outlandish decor and the quality of the service went some way to making amends.
My lowest invoice has been for Olley's fish and chips in Herne Hill - around pounds 5.50 including the fare there, although this is still above the average for a meal out in Britain. Inevitably most of the "good-value" meals I have eaten have been at this, the bottom end of the market. Early on in the job, two of us paid pounds 23 for a wonderful spread at Mangal, a little Turkish kebab shop in Stoke Newington, which included salads, bread, and pastries, as well an enormous mixed grill of succulently barbecued lamb, chicken and quail.
But it's not only the cheap meals that stand out. The pounds 39 set lunch at Le Gavroche proved a memorable bargain, including not only three courses and various tasters, but service, water and half a bottle of wine from a short but fine list. Indeed, set lunch at any of London's top Michelin- starred restaurants, such as La Tante Claire, the Oak Room and Chez Nico, offer, relatively speaking, exceptional value for money.
A quick perusal of the food guides confirms what you would expect: that the country's most expensive restaurants tend to be found in London; often, in fact, they're the very places that are such good value at lunch. The latest Good Food Guide suggests that Marco Pierre White's new flagship, The Oak Room at the Meridien Hotel, is the most expensive in the country, and indeed it would be, if, as the guide maintains, you could, by ordering a three-course meal with aperitifs, a superior bottle of wine and other extras, run up a bill of pounds 190 per person. When I queried this sum, however, the guide admitted it represented slip of the keyboard. At pounds 75 for a three-course a la carte supper the Oak Room is expensive, but not the most expensive in Britain. If that accolade should go to anyone, it's probably to Michel Roux's The Waterside Inn in Bray. With main courses hitting pounds 50 (for poached lobster), and coffee pounds 6.50, a three-course dinner can easily cost pounds 150 a head.
Still, once you are at this level, what really makes a difference to the cost of a meal is not where or what you eat, but your choice of drink. Le Gavroche was recently in the news because a Czech businessman and a few of his friends had managed to spend more than pounds 20,000 on two meals. Of that, less than pounds 1,000 went on food, the rest on wine, including pounds 4,950 on a bottle of burgundy.
The truth seems to be that there is almost no such thing as a bargain when it comes to wine in restaurants: the most you can hope for, unless you are an expert, is a knowledgeable and sympathetic waiter who can guide you through a list. Even in the evenings, the set-price dinners at London's top French restaurants can offer value for money; it is often the trendy restaurants, with decent but unexceptional food, that get you where it hurts. An evening at Mezzo or Bank or any of London's big brasseries can too easily set you back pounds 70 and glide by in a loud blur.
It is not, however, just London's restaurants that are capable of burning a hole in your pocket. A recent dinner at Hunstrete House, a large Georgian estate at the edge of the Mendip Hills between Bath and Bristol, reminded me that country hotels represent another way of throwing money at food.
Hunstrete House has been a hotel for 20 years, but has just been bought by the Fentum family, who also jointly own Homewood Park, a similarly appointed hotel about 13 miles to the east, 15 minutes' drive south of Bath. The Georgian house itself is no beauty, but its large walled garden, which supplies the kitchen with much of its produce, is dazzling, especially in the spring and summer. The hotel's interior, too, is stylishly done in an old-fashioned, very English way: it is a smart, professional set- up, but the antiques are real, and the house has a casual, almost domestic feel. Both the Fentums' restaurants have a reputation for fine French cooking, and as of this year both proudly boast Michelin stars. The larger dining room at Hunstrete was closed for refurbishment, so we ate in a smaller one with baked-bean coloured walls, beige carpet, and soft-spoken diners in large antique chairs. Stewart Eddy (formerly of Gidleigh Park and Manoir aux Quat'Saisons) has been chef at the hotel since November. His menu is short and luxurious, and the service formal, but both the cooking and presentation are relatively uncontrived.
I think we were slightly unlucky in that our meal was not quite all it could have been. In a main course of bass on a herb puree with a poultry jus the fish was a bit dry and salty; my partridge was similarly a little tough. The red cabbage that came with a first course of lightly sauteed foie gras rather overpowered the foie gras, although the caramelised chicory worked well and the foie gras itself was meltingly fine. An appetiser of poached clams, mussels and oyster in a herby broth was, on the other hand, excellent, and our pre-ordered desserts gave us a fuller idea of the kitchen's capabilities. Poached pears came on puff pastry and covered in mulled red wine sauce with a sherbety fromage blanc sorbet alongside. This, like a large thin apple tart with vanilla ice-cream, was simple but delicate and expertly done.
Other nice touches included fine snacks served with drinks by the fire, and a wine waiter apparently happy to open any bottle we wanted and serve it by the glass. Yet even if the food had been flawlessly executed, our Saturday-night dinner would still have been expensive. First courses hover at around pounds 14.50, main courses at pounds 24.50: with a modest pounds 30 bottle of wine, our meal for two would have come to pounds 150. Nor is this unusual; country hotels, or at least those that want to keep or acquire a Michelin star, have long since passed the pounds 50 a head mark and many like Hunstrete seem to be heading above pounds 75. Even to someone who has their expenses paid, that seems like a lot of money.
Hunstrete House, however, also offers a three-course set lunch at pounds 20 a head, seven days a week. Which is only to say that, given the beauty of gardens and the surrounding countryside, it probably makes sense to go for lunch
Hunstrete House, Chelwood, nr Bristol (01761 490490); all major cards. Open seven days, lunch 12.30pm-2pm, dinner 7pm-9.30pm.
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