Wednesday, 28 December 2011

[Out of Oxford] Westover Hall Hotel, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire

The back of the hotel. It could almost have been a summer's day (bitter December winds not shown).

If I ever spent Christmas in a hotel, it would have to be somewhere like Westover Hall, with its grand entrance hall overlooked by stained-glass windows, cosy wood-panelled rooms and spectacular views across to the Isle of Wight. This would be a good place for pretending that most of the twentieth century never happened (especially if Downton Abbey was booked up). But as my parents live a few minutes' drive away, I'll probably never get the chance. Still, for non-residents Westover offers two dining options: Vista Bistro, and the fine dining One Park Lane restaurant (the name isn't as pretentious as it sounds, as the hotel address is Park Lane). Fine dining seemed a bit much for a Wednesday lunchtime a few days after Christmas, so we went for the bistro, and its three courses for £20 menu, which included a strangely unadvertised glass of wine (it also turns out that you get one course free if you book in advance). Nevertheless, I thought that the influence of One Park Lane could be discerned in our meal - at least, in two of the three courses.

 The bistro is a pleasant and airy room (though I have to mention the awful piped music - from that noted album 'Deservedly Forgotten Hits of the Early 90s'? - that was completely out of keeping in this elegant Arts and Crafts building) with a direct view  of the Needles. We sat by the window and watched the weather out at sea changing in a manner that uncannily matched the course of our meal.


The sun was shining and the Needles were silhouetted against the horizon when the starters  arrived. These were mainly good, and in any case had been presented with great care. My 'Goat[']s cheese pannacotta with apple purée' came on a lovely cheesy, spicy biscuit, and the pannacotta (though whipped goat's cheese might have been a more accurate description) contrasted well with the pea shoots that topped it, with the apple adding a sweet touch. My mother and brother had 'Melon and Parma ham with rocket oil': the melon was not too ripe, but the dish was rescued by the crunchy fried ham. My father went for 'Chicken liver parfait with toasted brioche and red onion confit'. The parfait was well seasoned, and not bland at all. So far, it was almost fine dining.

But rainclouds were gathering over the Island, and soon the Needles were obscured in a thick mist. At this point, the main courses arrived. My parents and brother all chose (thanks to an allergy and various personal preferences) the same thing - the 'Minute steak with chunky chips and grilled tomato' - while I had 'Chicken with leek and saffron rice'. Not only had the other three not been asked how they wanted their steaks cooked, or offered steak knives, but a feeling of disappointed expectations now settled on the table. Good points: the chips were decent, the chicken warming and plentiful. Not so good points: the steak, though fine in itself, was rather tough (those knives would have come in handy); the chicken, which I thought might be a rather delicate dish ('leek and saffron rice' sounded almost exotic) was in fact this:

It was perfectly pleasant and I finished it, but I'd been expecting something more than a mild chicken curry with rice on the side. Still, at least it arrived in two neat piles, which is more than could be said of the three steaks. These arrived looking as if they had been flung on the plate with scant finesse. I wasn't impressed; it was hard to believe that they came from the same kitchen as the starters.

If the meal had ended there, this review would have been much more negative. Luckily, things improved for the third course - and yes, the sun came out from behind the clouds as well. Someone had bothered to make the desserts look appealing, and fortunately they mostly lived up to their appearance.
My 'Glazed orange tart' had a delectably thick sugar topping, and a creamy interior (although a stronger orange flavour would have cut through the richness); a 'Chocolate brownie with strawberry ice cream' looked almost as good as a homemade one and met with approval. My mother's dairy allergy means that she gets served a lot of off-menu fruit salads and sorbets, but this one deserves credit for being especially appetising (and including blackcurrant sorbet instead of the standard lemon):

So, the beginning and the end of the meal were impressive: it's strange that the presentation (and, to some extent, the quality) of the main courses was so markedly different. This made me wonder if dishes served in the bistro that can be prepared in advance - like starters and desserts - are created by the fine dining kitchen, while someone else cooks the main courses to order. That would explain the unevenness. I'd recommend Vista Bistro at Westover Hall for a decent, good-value meal in a lovely location (you can wander down to Milford beach from the hotel, and I'm sure the terrace outside is delightful in the summer). It's just a shame about the inconsistency.

Westover Hall Hotel, Park Lane, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire SO41 0PT
01590 643044


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