Jan Moir Are You Ready To Order
The woman behind the bar in 36 On The Quay looks up. Her expression is about as welcoming as a hole in the road. "Can I help you?" she says, in a manner that means she is not going to.
"Yes," I say. "Has a man in a blue shirt just come in?" "No," she says and goes back to pulling the wings off insects, or whatever it is that she is doing back there.
"Thanks," I say and tiptoe out.
After a while, I find S by the harbour-master's hut, transfixed by the little flags that whizz up and down, sending out signals to the circling yachts. Nearby, grown men simper as they twiddle levers to make model boats putt-putt across the waves in the harbour.
What is it with adult males and the sea? Once a bit of briny is spotted, chaps regress into toddlers - and not very bright toddlers at that. Come on, I say, pinching S by the ear and dragging him along the quay. Time to put your bib on and eat.
Back at the restaurant, there are now two female members of staff floating around with frost forming on their upper slopes. PG Wodehouse once lived here in Emsworth, a fishing village located between Portsmouth and Chichester, and suspicions rise that it wasn't just the local place names that inspired him. Even the faintest glimmer of a welcome would be appreciated, although the sudden appearance of a cloven hoof seems much more likely.
"Menus?" is about as far as pleasantries go, as we have a glass of Champagne and eat some dispirited canapés in the bar area. Actually, that's not fair. The cheese straws are nice. Pause for applause for the straws. Then we plod into the dining-room with heavy hearts.
36 On The Quay has been run by the husband and wife team, Ramon and Karen Farthing, for over ten years. That's Karen wandering around. She has given us a leaflet that states chef Ramon can be hired for a "one-on-one" cookery lesson for £225 per day, plus the cost of ingredients. No travel expenses if local.
However kindly one looks upon this, it is not exactly a positive message to send out to prospective diners, although I do appreciate that restaurants such as this must maximise their assets at every opportunity.
Perhaps that is why a table laid for an afternoon wedding party of 15 dominates the small dining-room, like a tanker in a paddling pool. In an ideal world, it would have been laid up after lunchtime service, so that lunch guests (ie, me) are not made to feel like an afterthought or a spectre at the feast.
36 On the Quay markets itself as a gourmet restaurant of serious intent and charges accordingly. It has to do a lot better than this to make its customers feel wanted. Valued. Cherished. Maybe even... sob... loved? Oh God, S, put down your wax crayons and pass me that hankie. I just don't think I can cope any more.
The restaurant's lovely views over the harbour are only lightly jaundiced by the Dalek-style air-conditioning unit plonked in the middle of the bay window, while elsewhere the decor is pure "Queen Mum in Springtime" - a pastel riot of lemon and baby-blue pelmets and swags, and a reliance on floral prints that the sensitive might find claustrophobic.
At the back of the room, a white bookcase creaks open to reveal that it is really a secret doorway. I mark it down as an emergency escape route if things start getting too desperate.
Today, there is a choice of two luncheon menus, one priced at £25 and one at £35, which include a couple of choices in each course, but not coffee. The dishes and ingredients are described in a way that suggests they might be on a date with Mickey Rourke instead of on a menu, for they are not just served, they are complemented, they are accompanied, they are laid and then, of course, they are finished.
We order John Dory complemented with langoustine foam; scallops accompanied by crisp pork belly; sea bass laid on red onion and vegetable risotto; and duck confit finished with a sherry vinegar sauce.
What can I say? Farthing is clearly a talented chef and the raw materials he uses are good, but all the dishes we have are moribund and pretentious, bogged down with rich sauces and an old-fashioned, elaborate style of presentation that is neither crisp nor well-ordered enough to succeed.
The duck confit is shaped into a cake and paved with oyster mushrooms, with onions and segments of orange dotted around the plate like numbers on a clock face. The two scallops are correctly medium rare, balancing alongside some carved pear on a crag of pork belly, jutting into a pool of parsnip purée.
The fillets of John Dory - really just a few scraps of fish - are layered with braised baby gems, steamed potatoes and pastry, then sauced with a couple of overcooked langoustines helplessly adrift in a foamy gloop. The sea bass is overcooked; the risotto is fine, if a little boring; the balsamic and olive oil dressing is too rich; although the prawn tempura is light and crisp.
On every plate, there are too many competing flavours and a certain kind of fretfulness indicative of a small kitchen over-reaching itself. The beef dish - billed as fillet served with a baby cottage pie and a cascade of sherry-vinegar-glazed vegetables encased in crisp pastry complemented by a classic bordelaise sauce - tells its own sad story.
In my heart, I don't believe the chef enjoys cooking this kind of stuff and cannot imagine that enough people want to eat it, certainly not on a regular basis.
In truth, no one seems to be happy in this house of misery by the sea, despite the waitress's attempts to get as much wine down everyone's neck as quickly as possible. After wrestling free my own cheapo, thin Chablis (at the bottom end of a list that quickly soars into three figures) from her clutches, I watch as she opens a bottle of Shiraz Cabernet for the foursome at the next table, then instantly empties it by filling each of their glasses almost to the brim. Grim, isn't it, what? As Bertie Wooster himself might say.
- 36 On The Quay, Emsworth, Hampshire .Tel 01243 375592 dinner for two £90 excluding drinks and service.