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Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Front Page - River Cot­tage Can­teen Kitchen & Deli, Trin­ity Square, Axmin­ster, EX13 5AN Tel: 01297 631715 www.river­cot­tage.net

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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.

RAT­ING 1/5

River Cot­tage Axmin­ster, Western Daily Press food re­view Sat, Jan 12

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