Saturday, January 14, 2006

Catch The Hare while you can

I don't know if The Hare at Lambourn Woodlands' chef, Tristan Mason, makes crop circles in his spare time. Come to think of it, head chefs at busy rural eateries don't actually get much spare time. But, on the plate, his leitmotif is the circle, and all manner of irregularly shaped foods end up mimicking the shape of the plate on which they are served.

That's as may be, I hear you ask, but what does it actually taste like? Well considering, as my mother, who we had taken out for her birthday bash let me know, that belly pork is a cheap cut of meat, Tristan turns it into a piece of heaven. That is the essence of fine dining: taking the ordinary and turning it into the extra-ordinary.

This belly pork is turning into a signature dish, with the beautifully succulent meat resting on a bed of cabbage all in a perfect disc, with another cirumference of black pudding mash alongside. The circular theme is extended with a glass of apple foam - not a heavy sauce, but the most delicate apple flavour suspended in a sea of bubbles.

My father, mother, eldest and wife opted for this celebrated meal, with my youngest trying the salmon, which she devoured. She is never normally a big eater, but caught up in the moment she polished it off like the rest of us. I opted for the roast beef as I had sampled the pork dish on our last visit, celebrating my mother-in law's 70th birthday. The beef was as rare as a sunny day in January and all the more tasty for it.

But hang on a moment: the circular theme was there from the off - in the shape of my foie gras and red onion marmalade roulade. That is a taste combination to die for. The rest of the family opted for poached eggs on brioche with sauce hollandaise and these were as light as a hot air balloon, but not, alas, the same shape.

For puddings, we were split 50-50. Half opted for the chocolate fondant with chocolate and pistachio ice creams, the fondant being baked with a fine crust concealing the gooey centre and the rest of us went for the winter fruit crumble, which was delicate and flowing with flavour.

With house wine, the bill for six was around £160 and the birthday girl was as knocked out as the rest of us with the experience we had.

Considering the strength of muscle in the kitchen, and the warmness of the welcome in the dining room, this place is un-realistically cheap. It is but a few miles down the road from the Vineyard, a michelin starred establishment, which attracts the sort of bucks that the award confers, but the Hare can give it a run (no pun intented) for its money.

Competition for diners pounds in West Berks is very stiff. We have an oasis of quality restaurants to chose from here, especially compared with Bracknell Forest, which was a culinary desert when we lived there in the early nineties. Mind you, given the amount of money about in this horse-racing corner of the county, we won't be piling on the pounds just yet. Prices are not at bargain basement levels, but the Hare is an opportunity to eat above its station.

Try it before they put the prices up to match the quality of their offering - in a word, fantastic.

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