14 May 2008

The Bank Job

RESTAURATEURS LOVE installing eateries in former banks. 1 Aldwych, 1 Lombard Street, and even my local 'Indian' continue the tradition of collecting cash - albeit more tastefully - in converted sites. The Old Bridge, Huntingdon is another relevant example, although you wouldn't recognise its former use judging from the idyllic riverside location (scratch the proximate dual carriageway) and ivy-wired frontage.
In many ways this could be looked upon as the UK's original Hotel du Vin. As well as a colonial style bar and the snug, wintery version, it encompasses two restaurants: the large breezy Terrace and a formal, panelled dining room. An alluring 400+ strong wine list devised by John Hoskins, passionate Master of Wine owner prevails, with low mark-ups on the more exceptional bins. There are also 24 bedrooms.
Unlike another local chef patron, Steven Saunders, who thought it was a grand idea to have at least one bedroom in The Sheene Mill splattered by Linda Barker (with a shower so complex its operation required clarification), these tend towards traditional country elegance rather then succumbing to becoming achingly trendy.
My parents and I dined amidst pastel murals in the Terrace on Sunday evening, not normally a good time considering that ingredients and enthusiasm inevitably deplete following a prolonged weekend peak. An unattractive pot plant was dying to join us.
After tall flutes of Billecart NV, lightly, pleasantly, slightly soapily appetising rather than densely flavoursome: a stewed Pea Soup with Mint, Crème Fraiche and a submerged, overly thick strip of Pancetta. Even though I managed the bowlful, one sip convinced me that it would clearly work better cold, enhanced by a couple of cubed icebergs.
My mother’s Corn-Fed Chicken and Leek Terrine was carefully made, although the slushy Pear Chutney barbed with - I think - cardamon was too sweet. A confusing suprise, although excellent, home baked, brittle Melba toast accompanied. Bread from the basket, also baked on site was tremendously good, particularly the darker slice of pelt and rye which was malty, almost chocolatey; not punishing health food. Hildon, the most limp of the mineral waters, was the only choice other then chalky, scaly Cambridgeshire (or that from the River Ouse).
I chose a bin end: Sonoma icon Ridge Geyserville ‘95, outstanding value at £36. In fact I found myself actually nervous in anticipation that it may no longer be available. Immediately gratifyingly fruit driven, after a few moments vanilla coated cherry, sweet plum, concentrated blackcurrant and raspberry warmly wafted, evoking Dr. Pepper. After about thirty minutes, the ‘Zinfidel’ became crisper, showing balance, open collared elegance and disarming charm.
When the main courses arrived, we soon forgot the lacklustre Sunday starters. My father (whose appetite I inherited) and I shared a generous Char-grilled Aberdeenshire Côte de Boeuf, classically sprinkled with lots of pepper-prickly watercress (it is after all national watercress week) and a big, gnawable bone. Thick Béarnaise was supplied separately, allowing us to taste the flavour of the moist, easily cutting, bloody meat undisguised. Huge onion rings and outsize chips that were almost too wide for my lens were presumably intended to play on scale. I would have preferred frites. Incidentally, did you know China is the world’s largest onion producer?
My mother enjoyed her Grilled Lemon Sole with Runner Beans, Fresh Peas and Sautéed New Potatoes, which was prepared with oil rather than butter to her request, without fuss.
As cutlery came to rest, an older gent at the other end of the conservatory became concerned with the manufacturer of his chair. Getting up and lifting it, looking for a clue. When the waiter glided over he explained both defensively and wistfully that he had known such a chair in his youth. Regardless, the offended waiter proceeded to flog him with a damp towel quickly unwound from the ice bucket. (Naturally, I jest).
A plate of three cheeses from Neal’s Yard came prostrate upon a plank with home baked biscuit neighbours (the baker here is marvellous). Dorstone Ash goats from Herefordshire had a foie gras mouthfeel, whilst Berkswell ewes from Warwickshire provided a fruitier, mellower alternative to Manchego. Durrus cows from Ireland was uncompromisingly filthy, tarnished, compacting itself with ripeness and bolshily pungent.
A wildly hedonistic, creamily whipped bittersweet Blood Orange (I predict 2008 will be the year of the Blood Orange in restaurants) and Campari Trifle followed, as did a complex, Christmas orange and spice scented Armagnac (a customer once asked me for a bottle of Almanac) from Domaine de la Brette, Tenareze. The price reassuring echoed the year, £6.90 for a shot of 1969. It also, seemingly, included the barely provoked, not uninteresting life-story of our waiter.
Overseen by the former owner of three other gastropubs in the region, including the Three Horseshoes [REVIEW], this has long been a favourite visit. The staff are elegant, attentive, but never pushy, nor prone to up-selling. When my father and I kept a boat on the river, we used to moor outside and enjoy Bloody Mary’s in the bar, which is also filled with real ales. I think deserved success lies in its broad appeal. Families, businessmen, wine lovers and river-boaters co-exist.
One thing is certain: The Old Bridge dispenses more pleasure to its customers in this incarnation then any triple-a institution.
I would bank on it.
The Old Bridge - 1 High St., Huntingdon. T. 01480 411017
Thank you for those lovely beings who voted for my review of Galvin at Windows over at Londonelicious. I am delighted to report that I won the chance to dine with author, Krista, to take place in June!