16 Oct 2008

Toilet Eyes

‘When you’re living in London you’ve got to compete on every level: when you walk down the street, to get to the underground, to get on the train and to get out of the train. You have to compete for the job that you have. To go to a restaurant you have to make a reservation a long way ahead. You’ve almost got to ask your accountant before you go! A normal lifestyle isn’t like that…’
[Geoff Lindsay, Chef, Pearl Restaurant, Melbourne]
ALTHOUGH IT is facile to pontificate from a preposterously distant, tediously sunny clime, Geoff Lindsay makes a persuasive point. London life has potentially perilous pitfalls. Depending on whom I am talking to, I live in the Lewisham end of Blackheath (or the Blackheath end of Lewisham). So far, so Tranquil Vale, excepting the occasional break-in to my car, symphonic sirens and the niggling muggings and murders...
Further from SE13, there are envelopes of East London into which I will never intrude. Last July I was hospitalised en-route to a friend’s in Limehouse. Having stitches woven into one’s eyelid is unnerving enough, a tickly process exacerbated by the fact that the nurse was already into the nineteenth hour of her double shift. The Criminal Prosecution Service since dispatched a letter detailing names/surnames of my trio of attackers. One of them was identified by their DNA, printed onto the rim of the bottle he smashed over my face (it felt like a bag of gravel). Another was imprisoned for manslaughter. If you have a strong stomach, there's more in my archive...
Unnerved, but still smiling, I stay within the M25 for now because, however coolly/cruelly faced, London is a life support machine for good - occasionally great - restaurants. And gastronomy is life's greatest adventure...
Medieval Lavenham, which slumbers in Suffolk, comes as a wholesome contrast to the soiled capital. With its impeccably slanting buildings, olde fashioned shoppes (viz. ‘Granny’s Attic’) and spired church built on capital from wool, I felt like I should pay an entrance fee. ‘The Great House’ was my destination, for Sunday lunch. Not as grand as the name suggests, but attractive. Georgian window frames are tastefully highlighted in the colour of camoflauge. Age has rendered the roof wavy. Inside, rugged seascapes cling against hardened beams. Spots target tables. Wall lamps look like hunting horns. Peugeot salt and pepper grinders resemble bath taps.
As it poured and blew outside, the Maitre’d arrived sporting short sleeves, which echoed his optimistic disposition. We were seated in a bright alcove overlooking a slippery courtyard. Contortionist waiters squeezed around fifteenth century beams to bring us Champagne poured from a Great House branded bottle. Welsh mineral water (which I really like) was stylishly packaged in a cool, designer gin like bottle. Bread was apathetic, however, and butter tepid.
A look at the menu revealed repellent honesty in ‘Farmed Seabass’.
I started with a marinated Foie Gras Leek and Smoked Pigeon Terrine brought by a waiter who looked hungover. I once heard that a really good foie gras terrine can make you crave it for breakfast. Unfortunately mine was underwhelmed by Sellotape leeks. Chef had tainted the brioche by frying it.
By all accounts, the Fried Parma Ham, Potato and Parmesan Galette with two fried Quails Egg and Hollandaise was the optimum choice, although it was evidently too good to share! It looked like a breakfast dish. Did you know that Parma pigs are fed on the whey left over from the making of Parmesan cheese?

I chose a bottle of fashionable fifth growth Bordeaux from a well priced, in parts terse (red Burgundy) list. Château Pedesclaux ‘00 was graceful and approachable: perfumed and sleekly textured. It was served a little warm, however, and could have been decanted.

For the main course, I had a tidily arranged, truffle scented heap of slow cooked Suffolk Chicken Breast, broccoli, baby carrot and dry mash, dusted with salt flakes. The chicken tasted happily corn-fed rather than fish-meal bloated and wantonly hormonal. Those inferior, battery birds have the texture of banku.
"Go on, take a picture,” said the bearer of Poached Iceland Cod. I doubted its photogenics. And judging by the earlier honesty of the menu, anything was possible. It could therefore have come from the 'Mum's Gone To' version rather than the ailing mid Atlantic ridge.
A basin of parsnip purée for the whole table was the most dazzling item produced by the kitchen, which is somehow indicting. Bravely, the restaurant had eschewed a typical roast.

A pit-stop revealed an immaculate gents shoehorned under stairs leading to six bedrooms. The wallpaper was unnervingly festooned with dispassionate female eyes. (I have seen that expression before when disrobing).

Back to the show, four scoops of homemade ice cream included a refreshing, bready textured pastille of white cheese. Crème Caramel (or Cambridge Burnt Cream, as Marco Pierre White told us it should be known - see this history) was dense and lovely. My Chocolate and Hazelnut tart with Seville orange sorbet was a little dry, however, and icing sugar was dusted in a way to suggest Maori war paint.

Good cafetiere coffee came with fried madelienes (they live and die to fry) and killer, mine-like, commercial tasting truffles. There was no cream, sadly (there rarely is these days).
A comment card came folded with the bill. I find these post mortem requests distasteful.
“Are all the chefs French?” one of us asked M. Short Sleeves. “Yes, we try to keep it as professional here as possible!” he only half joked.Overall, The Great House is a well run little ship, pushing out pretty enough dishes. It is by no stretch the gastronomic sanctuary some suggest, and service can be a little jarring. But it is cosy, very romantic, and reasonably priced.
It is also an escape from London. To live in Lavenham would be to die in the graveyard of ambition. But a few stolen hours had a marvellous effect.

'The Great House’ restaurant with rooms – Lavenham, Suffolk. CO10 9QZ. T. 01787 247431
FURTHER LINK: Sister restaurant, Maison Bleue