This was potentially the most important day of my life for years: the first step on my glittering path to success as a top restaurant reviewer. It had been in my diary for weeks, so naturally I left it until last night before bothering myself to ring up to book a table. By which time they could not fit me in at 8, as I wanted, and could only offer 7 or 9. The former would have suited me perfectly, since the later I eat the more certain I am to spend the night awake with agonizing indigestion, but I had asked some friends to accompany me so that I could attempt to sample more than one dish per course. And they, being upmarket types, could not possibly don a nosebag a second before 8. I reflected gloomily, after I had made the inevitable 9 o’clock booking, that I would probably be kept hanging around for at least an hour until the previous occupants were persuaded to vacate the table. Partly because they would be having such a wonderful time, and partly because the kitchen would not be operating at peak efficiency owing to the presence in it of a TV producer who has always fancied having a go at being a chef. Just as he always fancied having a go at being a newspaper columnist, which is how we both come to be writing about his experience in Thursday’s paper.
Things got off to an unpromising start less than a mile from home, when a lamb which had been peacefully nibbling the grass on the right hand verge decided to make a dash for the much more tempting grass on the left hand side of the road, just as I was about to pass it. The resulting combined swerve and emergency stop raised my blood pressure to danger levels before I had even started on my cream-laden dinner.
I arrived at the Queen’s Head in Great Whittington about five minutes later than planned, to find my guests awaiting me. It was clear from the excited buzz that greeted me as I walked through the door that my fellow columnist had taken two important precautions to ensure that the evening went well: encouraging all his friends to book tables, and providing a warm greeting with free pink sparkling wine at the bar.
I knew from reading A.A. Gill that all top restaurant reviewers go equipped with a Blonde, so I’d invited one to accompany me, the only slight disappointment being that she’d insisted on bring her grey-haired husband along with her. Somewhat ahead of schedule, we made our way through to the comfortable and well-appointed restaurant and studied the special menus for “Dinner with Tom” with keen anticipation, the only snag being that we fancied more or less everything on them. Sadly for the comic potential of this posting, there were no anguished screams emanating from the kitchen, still less signs of a man with a grey beard running amok with a meat cleaver.
There was a bit of a delay in serving our starters because another large table had sat down later than intended, and I did think that, given the choice, I’d probably have given priority to the bloke writing a review for the paper, but we were kept amused with lashings of what the Blonde called “jolly nice bread”.
When they did arrive, my male guest’s seared scallops with sweet chilli and ginger dressing were simply delicious as they melted in our mouths, and no lesser praise could possibly be lavished on the Blonde’s carpaccio of local Galloway beef. Perhaps the one weak link in the whole evening was the dish I had chosen for myself, a homemade chicken and spring vegetable terrine, which tasted of little but refrigerator.
To follow that, the Blonde’s husband had again lucked out by bagging the local Galloway fillet steak, on which his verdict was simply “you couldn’t have a better steak than that”. He was kind enough to share a couple of mouthfuls with me, and I concurred most heartily. It was simply superb meat, cooked to perfection for our tastes (though the Blonde complained that she could still hear it mooing). She was equally delighted with her Halibut Viennoise, served on a bed of taglioni, while my dish of “Tom’s slow braised spiced pork belly” was unlike any other pork belly I have ever eaten – and in a good way: lean, tender and succulent, with the flavour of really well cooked spare ribs, served on a perfect bed of tasty, wilted greens. We all shared a side order of Tom’s signature dish of roasted butternut squash risotto, which was every bit as good as the other main courses.
Battling on, purely in the interests of investigative journalism, I then nobly consumed a plate of Tom’s legendary bread and butter pudding, topped with homemade cinnamon ice cream. Crisp on the top and feather light in the middle, this is simply the best bread and butter pudding I have ever tasted anywhere. It might well be my chosen luxury, in the unlikely event that I am ever invited to appear on Desert Island Discs. My male guest had brought a doctor’s note and was excused pudding on the grounds of his wheat allergy, but the Blonde made some inroads into a massively politically incorrect sponge and raspberry concoction called “Jews’ pudding”. Because, as an exhausted Tom came out from the kitchen to explain, it was made with lots of fruit jews.
I do not think that I can sum it all up more succinctly than the well-known local TV personality who said on her way out that the food had been “orgasmic – almost as good as sex”. She added in a lower voice, “Actually, it was better than sex, but my partner will get a bit upset if I say that.”
It was about 11.30 when my guests and I left the pub, they to be ferried home by an obliging son, and I to make the 40 mile cross country drive along roads that were at least completely deserted. Except for the one car I encountered, at the precise point where the surviving abutments of a railway bridge on the long-closed branch line from Scots Gap to Rothbury narrowed the road to ensure that I had to brake sharply to allow it to pass me.