6 Mar 2009

Making Miles Better: A Road Trip

FOR VALENTINES I treated my paramour to three courses at ‘Little Chef’. Hardly a cruise to Hawaii, but miles better then the gift-wrapped iron her ex bought a couple of years back. Rather than life support for loos, I told her that motorway pit stops were becoming sexy: ideal venues for clandestine rendezvous. Indeed, one couple conducted so many trysts at Newport Pagnell north that there they married in front of 150 friends (and mystified motorists).
National Services
We made a stopping point our destination, popping into Popham, the greasy spoon gentrified last November by holder of three Michelin stars, Heston Blumenthal. The ‘culinary alchemist’ was not incidentally the first foodie to take services to task. In millennium year, Hungarian critic Egon Ronay labelled them “scandalous”, before trialling Corley on posh pastries and pricey panini. Fearing a carriageway clogged by hysterical fans from the Channel 4 show, we set off at sunrise. Forty spaces were woefully inadequate and cars sat on verges. Painted on tarmac, the Little Chef logo looked like a police outline. Even there, the warm grin of the pasty, pudgy character (slightly slimmed in ‘04) nudged nostalgia. I blame the lollipops waiters gift the kids, buying loyalty for life. Sweet memories…
The Road to Recovery
One of two managers brought in to cope from empty branches ushered us to a waiting area. A glamorous version of the brand’s history lined the walls. First impressions were stunning. The laminated menu with baked bean snaps had been banished along with the curt ‘wait here to be seated’ bollard. Smoothies replaced milkshakes which the child Douglas used to demand then regurgitate in his father’s Mercedes. Another tap of Heston’s magic wand had turned sad sausages described as ‘road kill stuffed into a condom’ by Victor Lewis Smith into best of British. Waiters wore bright shirts with culinary quotes. The ceiling was sky blue, the vibe positive.
We transferred to a counter facing a cheerful kitchen. Crammed with non-standard kit, rotisserie chickens twirled, flames licked the char-grill, oranges entered a juicer like bingo balls and wine a little strong for the roadside flowed from a brushed chrome enomatic from Italy. Although I thought they were a tad over-seasoned, my girlfriend gushed about her mussel pot, served with an iced finger bowl. My post-modern prawn cocktail featured plump specimens on crisp leaves, sprinkled in a light sauce.
Destined to be a Destination
Past the opposite carriageway, weekend flyers shot up in microlights. According to our waitress, well-heeled locals are so delighted by Blumenthal’s menu that they come here for dinner. The main courses explained why. The cod of my Valentine was generous, crisp, encased in a brittle beer batter with lovely fat chips and crisp green peas. My ox cheeks were tender, moist and almost fluffily fibrous. They were bound in a glossy, intense winey sauce. Mash was uplifting.
A decadent, milky sundae was layered with strawberry syrup and freeze-dried segments. These worked better there then my do it yourself trifle served over four plastic pots. In the cosy everyman atmosphere, I relaxed into regression, ordering more whippy. Only coffee was curiously pitiable.
Around the Bend
The loos were music box, with jingles and galley bustle piped within, although someone had sadly suffered a gustatory accident during our visit, and the mirror light was on the blink.
After three hours we paid the bill, served with the lollies and a complimentary carton of Cupid’s chocolate truffles. On the way home I couldn’t resist a peek in a classic Chef, untouched by Heston. Unlike Popham, it was a dismal disgrace: empty, musty, greasy and sharing its roof with a fast food drive-through. Basically the beaming logo has something to smile about. This is a positive prototype conceived with care and optimism beyond the photo opportunity. The cynic in me does however wonder whether there is enough profit in food this good to thwart the receivers when they come again. Whilst service is strained by table tourists like me, it needs to speed it up for customers in a rush. And air conditioning is paltry against the poultry on the rotisserie.
Three days later I realised a reservation at Blumenthal’s Bray restaurant. ‘The Fat Duck’ is the world’s second best. Even avoiding the Champagne cart, it cost ten times more then Popham. You may think me round the (motorway) bend, but veering off the A303 for St. Valentines, I ended up enjoying the peach of a diner as much if not more.
To borrow from the Michelin bible, Popham is ‘very good in its category’ and well ‘worth a special journey’.
Little Chef at Popham Services - Micheldever, Winchester, Hampshire. SO21 3SP

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