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Mark Taylor visits Hugh Fearnley
Whittingstall’s Axminster restaurant
THIS year marks the 20th anniversary of Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall’s first River Cottage TV series, which went on to help the celebrity chef, broadcaster and food campaigner create a hugely successful brand.
Part of that brand is a trio of River Cottage restaurants in Bristol, Winchester and the original in Axminster, close to the Dorset and Devon border.
In those two decades, FearnleyWhittingstall has certainly influenced and changed the way many of us eat, cook and think about food, sustainability, local sourcing and organics.
His hard-hitting campaigns targeting EU fishing laws, food waste, obesity and intensive farming methods (especially chicken) have made quite an impact over the years and it’s hard not to admire his passion and commitment.
I have always had a lot of time for Fearnley-Whittingstall and many of his cookbooks line the shelves in my kitchen, so a visit to the Axminster restaurant, close to River Cottage HQ was more like a pilgrimage. Or at least it should have been.
It’s hard to say exactly how much involvement Fearnley-Whittingstall has in his restaurants these days, other than selling his books there, but as a one-time restaurant critic himself, I’m sure even he would have winced at the calamitous experience I had in Axminster last week.
It wasn’t until the very end of a long and excruciatingly bad lunch that the staff – not the most communicative I’ve encountered – revealed that a chef had called in sick and that the head chef was essentially on his own, with a little help from a couple of agency chefs who had been roped in despite never working in that kitchen before.
OK, it was the first week of January when many restaurants are having some down time after the festive season, but with a full restaurant one imagines the management should have had contingency plans in place, even if it meant sending chefs down from the Bristol or Winchester kitchens in taxis.
It wasn’t until 1pm – 40 minutes after I was shown to my table – that the alarm bells started to ring. Looking around, I could see food only on one table and everybody else seemed to be shrugging their shoulders, tutting and tapping their fingers like wedding guests waiting for the announcement that the buffet was open.
On the next table, a woman who looked well into her eighties had already clocked the situation.
“What’s going on?” she whispered to her increasingly impatient son. “We can’t sit for hours on end, you’d better have a word.” It certainly comes to something when octogenarians start complaining about slow staff, especially when the waitresses are a quarter of their age.
The two women in front of me had had enough by 2pm, having waited over an hour-and-a-half. At one point they told the people on the next table that they were so hungry they were considering eating the flower decoration on the table.
In the end, they simply pulled on their coats and walked out, something I would have happily done if I didn’t have a review to file.
After 45 minutes, my starter appeared with no apology. Billed as seared wood pigeon breast, smoked onions, cauliflower purée and chervil (£8.50), the pigeon was overcooked, the cauliflower purée lukewarm and fridge-cold in places and the onion had none of the promised smokiness.
There followed a further delay of 40 minutes, again with no apology or communication as to why people were still waiting so long (although I noticed they were keen for diners to order more drinks).
Chargrilled saddleback pork belly and chop (£16.75) boasted the sort of depth of flavour you would expect from carefully sourced local meat, but the chop had spent far too long on the heat and was so dry and chewy that I thought I was going to develop tennis elbow trying to slice it. The accompanying celeriac, apple, parsley and walnut salad provided a fruity crunch, but the dish needed more than a scoop of salad for the price.
I’d like to be able to tell you how the roast apples and pears with teasoaked prunes and cider brandy dessert was, but it didn’t turn up, so I had to call for the bill and escape. After all, I’d already missed one of the hourly trains and was about to miss the next one.
For a menu that promised so much, this was as amateurish and sloppy as any meal I can recall.
Ok, so they were a chef down, but that’s a reality of the restaurant world. A few days before, I’d eaten in a restaurant where the chef-owner cooked 30 meals single-handedly and every dish was sent out quickly and beautifully presented.
I don’t blame the kitchen at River Cottage or the waitresses, who looked as embarrassed and sad as the diners. This was clearly a case of sloppy management.
Bad day at the office or not, if customers are investing their time and money in visiting your restaurant when there are so many other places they can go, you have to deliver and you have to make sure you have the proper staff, whatever it takes.
This was a meal that missed the mark at every turn and the restaurant needs to raise its game. It would be a shame to tarnish the River Cottage brand in the year it marks its 20th birthday.
River Cottage Axminster, Western Daily Press food review Sat, Jan 12