House Whine

I'll get around to tonight's gristle-fest at Lena in a day or two but first it's Cotswold House that must face my wrath. My rarely unleashed wrath as it happens. Generally speaking, I'm a bit of a "glass half full" person and possibly easier to please than many in my position: I certainly don't go out aiming to hate everything on my plate like certain reviewers in certain weekend supplements. Mind you, having been eating vaguely professionally for nine years, I would cheerfully argue that the old image of British food - bland and boiled to buggery - had been replaced by a proper food culture. Sure, there are still places where the microwave is king and catering packs abound but food HAS improved. Fact.

And then the Law of Sod kicked in to serve up two of the most disappointing meals of my reviewing life. They weren't the worst - the late, not-at-all lamented Arizona in Camden still has that honour - but they were mostly grim. I'll get onto Lena in due course, but first to Chipping Campden...

Let's start with a positive or two. Cotswold House is a lovely hotel. Chipping Campden is so achingly pretty it looks like a Cotswolds theme park. From the outside, Cotswold House is a traditional building: actually, it's several traditional buildings that have been knocked through to create a relaxed, modern space. Our suite, in the Montrose House section of the hotel, was a beautifully appointed temporary residence, with lovely linen, a private courtyard, a massive stone bath, three TVs (including one in the bathroom wall - decadence is watching the Six Nations in the bath), a free mini-bar... Hell, they even have a pillow menu so you can choose from duck or goose down if the synthetic ones aren't to your taste.

They get so many of these details right, it's a shame that other elements stutter. For example, on arrival, we ordered tea. And, some 24 hours later, the dirty cups were still sitting in the lounge despite us having been out for a few hours and with staff coming in to turn down the bed etc. It's picky, yes, but if you're aiming for five star status, it's all about the details.

Another sign that they're aiming high is Juliana's, the much rewarded restaurant showcasing Steve Love's modern food. Love, a Roux scholarship winner, has worked with Alain Ducasse and you can see his desire for Michelin recognition in every aspect of the restaurant. The room is great, the service winning, the wine list excellent, the bar relaxing and the menu is ambitious. Love clearly has some talent: you don't get the Roux acknowledgement for just turning up, Ducasse has his pick of students and the restaurant's collection of AA rosettes and stars puts it in the Top 100 in the UK. I can only assume then that they just the offest of off days on Saturday night.

Beetroot, feta, seared tuna and basil is a wild combination of flavours that could actually work. The richness of the tuna, the saltiness of the feta, the tang of the basil,
the sweet earthiness of the beetroot - and that vinegary acid hit to cut through it all. This is bold stuff. Or at least would be if the tuna hadn't been overcooked (is there anything more depressing in a good restaurant than grey tuna?) and if the beetroot had actually tasted of anything. Seriously, you can cut it up into all sorts of funky shapes, and make it into jellies and sorbets and assorted other "trimmings" but if it doesn't taste of anything, you might as well be serving ice. On the other side of the table, the apparently winning combination of foie gras and fig variations - port wine figs, a chutney and a sorbet - was also underwhelming. The foie gras was first rate, but the chutney and sorbet were too low powered to add anything of note and the whole fig was bitter. I've never seen Mrs L leave a fig before and I can only describe her expression as "meh".

Remarkably, the standard dropped with the mains with a bland rabbit dish and the mealy "Goosenargh Duck in Two Servings". After a couple of mouthfuls, we looked at each other, called for the manager and asked for his opinion: should it all have been served tepid? Or, in the case of the "caramelised winglet" stone cold? To give him his due, he looked appalled and whisked the plates away. A few minutes later, the plates reappeared allowing us to enjoy the complete lack of flavours in the meat and the pointlessly poncey accompaniments. The duck boasted the enhancement of yuzu marmalade - a great success as it happens - and piquant carrots and onions. Piquant? I know my taste buds are pretty inured to spice these days but if those were piquant I could be a supermodel. The cabbage was supposed to be flavoured with caraway. If it was, I can only assume they bought it from the same catering company as the beetroot.

The annoying thing? They clearly know what they're doing as the second serving of duck - the thigh, with white radish, duck liver and foie gras - was divine. The meat melted in the mouth, the reduction sang, the foie gras gave it creamy weight and the liver was intensely meaty. If only the rest of the meal had been up to standard.

For afters, a banana and peanut butter parfait was adequate, the carrot cake was a little gloopy and the petit fours ranged from the very good to the eminently forgettable. Quite frankly, second bit of duck aside, the only bit of the meal I'd be willing to go through again was the bottle of Chateau Musar.

According to previous guests Mr & Mrs Hazan, Juliana's is "better than The French Laundry". If I was Thomas Keller, I might take legal action over that claim...


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