Àclèaf. A tiresome word; particularly if you have to type it. I mean I can just about say it, what with it being simply ‘a leaf’ with a hard ‘c’ coming straight after the ‘a’. But then it’s got those accents. Quite what their functions are is beyond me, and I gather that it is an Old English term for oak leaf. But did they use accents in the Middle Ages? Most people couldn’t read back then, so I don’t expect the use of accents, grave or acute, bothered them either.
The name is one of two tiresome things about this restaurant, which, once they have been hurdled, settles in nicely. The second thing is that, once seated in this fine-dining establishment at a country-house hotel called Boringdon Hall, near the outer suburbia of Plymouth, a challenge is set by one of the chefs. She came to our table and addressed us like children, which I thought she was doing because 50 per cent of us were indeed children.
Because of this obviously I didn’t pay much attention. We were handed pieces of paper and asked to do something like choose a colour and a leaf. This would then materialise, it was suggested, into some kind of sensational culinary surprise.
But it wasn’t aimed at the kids. The chef did the same slow, studied, primary-school-assistant-address-to-a-four-year-old spiel at the next table, and then to every other table.
Perhaps they think it adds charm to the place, breaking down the barriers of formality. But they needn’t bother. Within these rooms of muted décor, pale walls and wooden beams, are fabulous, attentive, professional service and cute touches, such as having a personalised printed card for the children. And, with great wit, the request for pasta with tomato sauce and fish and chips was printed formally, and with that fine-dining aura of mystery, as ‘Pasta, tomato, Parmesan’ and ‘Turbot, potato, pea’.
Dinner began with fabulous breads, sharp-ended baguettes that would skewer an intruder and impress a good French baker, along with wholesome snacks including salami. Then came my course of ‘tomato, saffron, anise’, in which tomatoes arrived in various forms – assorted lumps and balls – none of which carried discernible flavour. And while Emily fared better with a silky smooth dish of scallop in a creamy sauce of citrus, the promised ‘green chilli’ was as much in evidence as the flavour in my tomatoes.
But grumbles evaporated during the subsequent courses of crab (a pretty swirl of the stuff decorated with herbs and dabbed with mango) and a perfectly sweet dish of turbot, with clams and vanilla, plated with natural aplomb – the confident work of a chef who leaves the diner with the impression that while he obviously cooked the food, he didn’t then spend an hour fiddling with it.
The same subtle decorative skills were on display with my Wagyu beef, perfectly pink in a rich jus balanced with tart summer beans and a small onion; and with Emily’s sole, broken into two pieces – think the Titanic as she split and sank beneath the waves – and served in a sauce of langoustine.
Filled with these goodies, we tried to wave away puds but were bombarded with perfect circles of chocolate and miso and spheres of raspberry and peach.
If you find yourself in Plymouth and crave fine dining then, infuriating nounal grammar aside (and that coloured-leaf surprise never did materialise), head chef Scott Paton and his team of able servers won’t let you down.