2 Sept 2008

A Load of Bulls

‘Even when I'm not there, you can smell me, metaphorically speaking…’
[Marco Pierre White]
MY OLDER foodie friends share a glossy eyed look when reminiscing about Marco Pierre White’s three star, halcyon days. Whilst I have not eaten anything he actually prepared, I have filled my tummy with the flavours of his inspiration…
I encountered my first M.P.W. morsel back in 2002 when he was involved in a four floor, fishy stack propped by 150 years of heritage. ‘Wheeler's of St. James’ was a couth but cramped, venerable institution with malachite coloured walls, silk curtains and banquettes seemingly lifted from the House of Commons. It must have been a struggle to work in. Whilst it shut its doors two years ago (the plan to roll out a chain having failed), I still remember the taste of the Foie Gras. It delivered one of the most satisfying, enduring, luxurious sensations I had ever experienced in a restaurant. And the texture. Oh, what a cosseting, yielding lump it was, scooped onto magic carpets of Melba Toast!
My second experience occured four years later and was sadly less than positive. Mayfair’s 'Mirabelle', once frequented by a galaxy of stars, had become desperately down at heel. I uncharitably described the venue as being: ‘stuffed into a glitter-balled, crepe wall-papered basement wardened by obnoxious, ill-trained, prissy crétinés.’ Tables were ‘doused in the funereal odour of too many lillies.’ And the food? – ‘plastic-play in consistency.’
I visited a day or two before Toby Young thrust the knife in: ‘…it needs all the help it can get.’ Alas, Mirabelle now is most definitely mort.
Perhaps motivated by his most recent patriotic meal manifesto, ITV’s ‘Great British Feast’, my girlfriend and I were prepared to give White another go. We checked into its seventeenth century set, ‘The Yew Tree Inn’, Highclere: a refreshing dot amidst Hampshire pasture.
Via a warren of corridors and a landing doubling as a store for Christmas decorations, we were shown a small, dark priest hole featuring a previous guest’s dirty socks. They weren’t in the brochure. A polite plea for something more ambitious earned us an apology (‘it’s the Columbian cleaner’) and a brighter, more handsome room. It was festooned with no fewer then 33 sketches of bulls, horses and a coy sheep, precursors to heavy bronzes (also featured). Stone pelicans perched, bedside. A colossal camel brayed in the wet room. No wonder, it was a badly built space which became so soaked, it required a lifebuoy.
Despite dining on a Sunday evening, the ‘Eating House’ was bursting at the beams. We sat in an inglenook surrounded by territorial locals, one of whom chewed thunderously and later disputed the cover charge, a curious relic which is also common to White’s former Soho enclave, ‘Quo Vadis’ (latin for ‘where are you going?’). Our table was simply dressed: linen on top of a leather undercloth. Caricatures, quotes and other White related paraphenelia lined the wattle and dawb walls. Bread (which we had to ask for) looked like it had been used to chamois-dry a car.
Unfortunately my girlfriend had over-celebrated her cousin’s hen party the previous evening, meaning she was not in a drinking mood. In fact, feeling slightly queasy, she had – discreetly – brought along a rolled-up plastic bag (in case of emergency). Having a cast iron countenance, however, I effortlessly drained a flute of uncomplicated Champagne on her behalf (Alain Thiénot) and took in the paired down Sunday menu. £15.50 plus £2 cover charge. Many dishes pay homage to White’s formative positions, including Wheeler’s Fish Pie and the Box Tree Bread & Butter Pudding.
My girlfriend chose comfortably balanced Kipper Pâté with Whisky (which I failed to mention) and Melba Toast. Not only did it taste perky, but it was also presumably a good way of using up leftovers from breakfast. I had an upturned sandcastle of springy Potted Shrimps with de-crusted slices of brown bread (£5 supplement). Both starters oozed fresh, molten butter.
A glass of purple, plum, fudge and white pepper flavoured Billi Billi (the entry level Shiraz from Mount Langi, Victoria) slightly overpowered my medium rare, entirely edible, Steak au Poivre (£8 supplement). This carried soft, succulent, shiny centred, lightly battered Oyster passengers.
Thick cut, crunchy chips and a hefty side order of vinegar stained red cabbage (£2.50) accompanied. Yew Tree’s moist Fish (cod) & Chips was encased in a crisp batter sarcophagi, served with excellent, earthy, fresh Pea Purée.
A ridiculously tasty Eton Mess followed, a signature dessert and sweet winner of the Great British Feast. Tall and visually arresting, it was lavishly sauced with strawberry purée, overflowing with layer upon layer of raspberries, ice cream, crushed meringue and double cream.
A precise French waitress who said “Cheers” every time a plate needed moving, deftly served the lullingly hearty British meal.
Afterwards we took part in a Coffee & Gâteaux ‘Conversation’ in the slightly frigid bar next door. Thank goodness, the plastic bag remained rolled for the duration.
After a nightlong battle with a sash window, which refused to stay open, and sharp misadventure with one of the stone pelicans, it was time for breakfast.
Realising the threat made in the quote at the top of this review, the rather intimidating Marco Pierre White and chauffeur, Mr. Ishii (a.k.a. ‘Odd Job’ from Bond) appeared. The fact the proprietor was on site probably helped assure one of the best cooked breakfasts of my life. (The other accolade goes to Melville Castle, Edinburgh).
The collage: Stornoway Black Pudding, spicy Baked Beans (rectified on site), long lilos of crisply fatty bacon, a little casserole of fresh local mushrooms, soft centred sausages, fried bread and a fresh egg with an apricot coloured centre…

Talking to the Maitre’d, I was told that they achieved 170 covers the evening before. Astonishing, considering the floor space. There are, not suprisingly, plans to extend both the number of guest rooms (currently six) as well as the restaurant. I suppose ambition never dies, although I think fanning this little inn out in every direction could fatally damge its charming intimacy…

M.P.W.'s Yew Tree Inn - Andover Rd., Highclere, Berkshire. RG20 9SE. T. 01635 253360