Colleys Lechlade, Lechlade-on-Thames - Restaurant Review

An unexpected detour leads Katie Jarvis to an idiosyncratic Edwardian parlour

You might have thought a museum, above all places, would possess a sense of time. But there again, maybe they’re only good on eons, ages and complete geological periods. Not rubbishy trivia such as hours, minutes and seconds. Anyway, we’re three quarters of the way to Oxford, a mere half hour from our booking at the Ashmolean Dining Room, when the mobile rings.

“Sorry,” says the lady on the other end. “We’ve got the engineers in and we’ve had to cancel your booking.” There then follows something crackly, which seems to centre on a mysterious problem with gas and not being able to cook. “It’s amazing,” I want bitterly to point out. “Any one of your exhibits could spear a wild beast for us, roast it over an open fire, scoop a pint of Blenheim Palace mineral water from the local stream, serve up some pretty serviceable mammoth tapas - and Ug’s your uncle.” But, without gas, the Ashmolean is back in the Stone Age. Well, there’s progress for you.

I can only assume the lady on the phone is an expert in 19th century social trends of bobbin production; she’s certainly not expert in the perfect time to phone approaching dinner guests. “We haven’t told our 8pm bookings yet because it might be sorted by then,” she says, between crackles. Yeah, but then again, it might not and then where are those poor starving loves going to eat? Still, whatever suits you.

Whenever problems arise that are beyond our control, Ian and I always feel it best to try to pin the blame on each other, and this passes the time successfully for a while. Ian, temporarily losing (he is, after all, responsible for most of the world’s ills), suddenly notices we’re right by Witney and maybe there’s somewhere to eat here. We stop a nice-looking lady and ask. “Ooh, yes,” she says. “Follow me: �10 for two courses, including a glass of wine.” This, of course, is unacceptably good value when we’re on expenses. We make our excuses and try to think what an MP would do.

I suddenly remember Colleys in nearish-by Lechlade. “Actually, we do have a space for two this evening,” says the equally nice man I get through to. This is a bit of a worry, it being a Saturday night and all. It’s like not wanting to belong to the sort of club that would have you. Moreover, they don’t open until 7.30pm and it’s still only 6pm. But we go for an excellent pint of homebrew at the Crown next door, read the Guinness Book of Records by the open fire, marvel at the picture of the man with the very long carrots, and wait.

For those of you who’ve never been, Colleys is idiosyncratic. In an interesting way. There’s only one ‘sitting’, so everyone gets each course at more or less the same time; there are four (sort of five) of those courses at a set price of �29.95 (on Saturdays; cheaper other nights); and everything’s done with a great deal of theatre. But rumours that everyone has to sit at the same table, or that the door’s locked and you can’t leave until everyone else does, are false. Decor-wise, it has the feel of an Edwardian parlour; indeed, the sort-of head butler who leads proceedings, with the help of various ‘parlour maids’ and ‘footmen’, reinforces that. “I’m getting a message through from a J. Does anyone know of a J, who is now on the other side?” OK, he doesn’t say that; but Madame Arcati would be right at home here. Feel free to rap the tables between courses.

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The clientele is pleasingly varied. There’s a beautifully turned out family of four, two children under 11, who order a bottle of champagne and behave impeccably. Unbearably enigmatic. I’d love the Other Side to tell me what they’re celebrating. There’s a middle-aged party of 10 to my left; a girly group; and all-age couples right through to several hovering undecidedly between this world and the next. It feels very pally; so much so that, when a birthday cake is brought through, the whole room breaks into spontaneous song, only pausing at ‘Insert name here’, when we all suddenly realise we haven’t brought a present and haven’t a clue whose birthday it is anyway.

The USP at Colleys is that you’re shown every single dish at your table, to help you make up your mind. We’re offered as starters an aged cheese salad, a fish terrine and a potato pie with a ham and beef ragu. How much clearer or helpful could they be? But that doesn’t stop me trying to order the mushroom soup which, I’d failed to understand, is a course in its own right. The dishes are all perfectly serviceable. But as the mains strut in, like models on a catwalk, we realise this is all about eating and not really about food at all. It’s fun and different, but the dishes tend to be fairly plain: a nicely-rare lamb, spicy Indian potatoes and steamed veg -  ingredients that seem faintly surprised to find themselves on the same plate; a huge breast of chicken; salmon; a veggie pasta. We’re told the chicken is free-range and, when I ask, that it’s local. But with this sort of ceremony, you want real information: that the chicken lives in a Llewellyn-Bowen-designed arc down the road, with minibar and towelling bath robes. When the parade of puddings comes in – bread and butter, (lovely) steamed syrup, sorbet, mousse, trifle, tarte tatin and cheeses – we’re told the cheeseboard is British, but the waiter doesn’t know what the cheeses are. Hmm. Quantity isn’t lacking; you’re encouraged to pace yourself and try more puds (hence the ‘extra’ course in the form of cheese). But neither can you hurry it. Courses are served when Colleys are ready, which means you’re in danger, as a friend pointed out, of being absolutely paralytic by the time the dessert arrives.

So how can I sum up? Don’t get me wrong: this is genuinely highly enjoyable, full of touching hardware details, attentive service - and it’s that little bit different. It’s just lacking a teensy bit of substance. A bit like signing up for opera and finding The Pirates of Penzance on the bill instead.

Ambience 8; Food 6; Service 9; Value for money 8.

Colleys Lechlade, High Street, Lechlade-on-Thames GL7 3AE, 01367 252218; www.colleyslechlade.co.uk

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