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Sorry folks! This piece kicks off with a bit of a rant. You can always skip down to the good bit about The Prince of Wales just outside Esher, and we've listed some other good "gastro-pubs".
I don't tend to eat in pubs that often, only because in my line of work, when I eat out it tends to be in one of the restaurants we're reviewing. It ought to be a nice change to go for an informal pub meal with some mates, but more often than not it's a disappointment, an embarrassing one even, if one is with guests from abroad.
Let's leave aside the beer from this discussion. You either like British beer, or you have not yet acquired the taste for it. It isn't served warm, as foreign detractors often like to point out, anymore than than claret is served warm - both are served a little cooler than room temperature. But I'm not talking beer, I'm on about the wine and the food in pubs.
It has become quite hard to find a really undrinkable bottle of wine in a supermarket or liquor store in England, certainly not in London and the home counties. You have to be clever to hunt out one of those old fashioned dusty Bordeaux wines that taste of old hymn books. You have to have talent to spot a white wine that tastes not of vigorous young fruit but of cheap vinegar, or oxidised like bad sherry, or if you're lucky, something healthy like sour unripe apples. But pubs - or rather the breweries that breath down their necks like foetid jackals - are brilliant at finding such revolting dross. They enjoy serving it to their customers, safe in the knowledge that somehow in a pub one doesn't complain. Their arrogance is breathtaking. Customers in pubs don't know any better, no one (other than poncy food and wine writers) has ever complained before, so we may as well keep peddling the junk.
If you ever see a brightly lighted wine dispenser with a row of taps and the name Stowell's of Chelsea on it, my advice is to make for the nearest exit, or better still, quickly acquire the taste for good English beer. We tried the so-called Italian Chardonnay. If a team consisting entirely of Master's of Wine could identify this fluid as Chardonnay I'd be amazed. I'm not saying it doesn't come from the Chardonnay grape, - simply not the Chardonnay grape as we know it.
We continued with some undistinguished but wholly innocuous Frascati - a bargain at £8.95 a bottle, representing a modest markup of only about two and a half times the cost price. Then we tried a Cotes du Rhone. My guests were too well mannered to point out that it was corked (something that can happen to any wine), and we had drunk over half the bottle before I tasted it. When I pointed the fault out so belatedly to the management they handled it impeccably and brought us another bottle that wasn't corked. The lack of corkiness revealed that the wine had all the character and fruit of a fresh piece of cardboard. It cost £8.95 a bottle.
The pub, in the Surrey village of Runfold, is called The Jolly Farmer, seems very popular, it was packed in fact, as it has a good reputation for providing good pub grub. We sat at a comfortable table and enjoyed waitress service which was good, though my request for my lamb cutlets to be cooked rare caused the girl some consternation. "I don't think they cook lamb chops like steak" she said, regarding me with all the sympathy one offers the gastronomically challenged. Three generous chops of entirely homogenous texture were served in the dark and quite tasty sauce in which I imagine they had been cooked.
Before that I had a seafood "salad" which tasted wholly of vinegar. I tried tasting the different bits of mussel and squid with my eyes shut. Only the reassuring taste of acetic acid - no salmonella could withstand that acid attack! Our guests both ate pork fillets in calvados, they passed no comment so I assumed they enjoyed them. My wife had fishcakes which she said were passable and could have been homemade. The bill, which included the two bottles of wine but not incidental drinks and no puddings, came to £20 each, including a genuinely discretionary gratuity.
Easter Sunday found us in another Surrey pub - in the village of East Clandon - for lunch with a different pair of friends. Here the wines were better, no trace of Stowell's. We tried a bottle of Bright Brothers Argentine Red at £8.95, which was light and fresh. But here at the Queen's Head, the art of reducing food to a necessary if comforting refuelling stop had been honed to perfection. They could give master classes in how to ruin a good joint of beef or lamb. With such loving art do they render it the same gloomy colour and texture all the way through. We tried cuts from each other's plates. The lamb was recognisable more by the taste of mint sauce than by absent rosemary, garlic or genuine lambness. The lemon meringue pie had a topping that might have been made of lightly extruded sponge rubber. The pastry of the apple pie was soggy, containing uncaramelised pieces of apple in gloop.
The supreme irony was that this meal was served by a charming young Frenchman from Paris who seemed quite untouched by the cheerless provender he was obliged to set before us. How I wished he could change places with some of his dour compatriots who glower at diners in the smarter London restaurants. And how readily I would forgive their scowls out here in Surrey.
On Bank Holiday Monday we went for lunch with a pair of that new breed of young girl chefs to the The Prince of Wales in Weston Green, a little village just outside Esher. They do very nicely from the passing trade on its way to and from Garson Farm, an amazingly successful Farm Shop venture of Disney World proportions - and with prices to match. I rather think that the Prince of Wales would be full to bursting even without any passing trade. It's a huge pub, made by knocking several historic buildings together, and there is plenty of olde worlde atmosphere. The beers were excellent, and the wines are chosen by Tim Atkin - at any rate he isn't afraid to put his name to the list. So there's a better class of Frascati, the one from Fontana Candida for £9.30, Santa Ana Malbec from Argentina for £9.35, a Kiwi sauvignon blanc for £11.90 from Mount Riley, and Tarapaca Cabernet from Chile at £9.90, to name just a few.
As we walked in, we noticed the food was unfussily presented on good plain white deep bowls, remarking as we sat down that we've seldom been disappointed when this has been the case. A salad of warm chicken livers (£3.75) was actually a starter but was generous enough as a nice light lunch dish. The salad was properly dressed and the livers had not been overcooked. Sausages on bubble and squeak were not quite cutting edge bangers, they were a bit too bready, but the bubble and squeak was excellent and so was the gravy.
Chicken and thyme dumplings turned out to be slivers of nicely grilled chicken breast with large but beautifully light thyme flavoured dumplings. Full marks for a staple that you now rarely see. They came with savoy cabbage that was nicely al dente and had plenty of strips of bacon mixed in with it. I had lamb noisettes (£9.90) that were tender and pink inside, and they came on a superb red cabbage confit, so dark and well cooked it was practically black!
What a contrast, and what a delight!
PS - back to the sour note - most of the veg and stuff that we got from the Garson Farm Shop should already have been well past its sell by date.
The Prince of Wales, West End Lane, Esher, Surrey. KT10 8LA
Tel: 01372 465483
Clifford Mould April 1999
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