I arrived early at The Victoria at Holkham (due to there being a hour between Coasthoppers at night) so found a comfy settee in the Moroccan lounge surrounded by fat creamy candles and a size-of-a-bath bowl of citrus fruit and chilled a little before checking out the menu on offer tonight. There were a couple of interesting options but I wanted something fairly undemanding tonight and instead of the local rump steak and one of my favourites potato treatments - Gratin Dauphinois I opted for the simpler sounding Wild mushroom, truffle & mascarpone risotto for my main course. But for starter I thought I'd stay local and chose the Marinated breast of Holkham pigeon, carpaccio of fig & pancetta. Not being a fan of those winged rats in Trafalgar Square I always think that one less pigeon in the world is a fine thing (and yes I do know that the plump birds that fly happily around the estate are mere second cousins to those nasty, deformed clawed pests of public buildings). I ordered my choices in the lounge and taking a delicious glass of Malbec with me before being led to my table.
I'm seated in the conservatory and in the warm light I'm not entirely sure if the newly painted woodwork is a soft pistachio (is that even possible?) or a dusky blue. On second thoughts I'm going to split the difference and say it's a muted teal and it is echoed in the abstract meandering stems (a more green-fingered diner than me could probably pinpoint the flora) on the heavy cotton cinnamon blinds that adorn each window. Which as tonight we are experiencing the extreme opposite of lovely summer evening (though there's been no snow yet!) the less I see of the gloomy rain lashed goings on outside is a good thing.
But to paraphrase the introduction from Cabaret, "outside it is windy... in here life is beautiful!" and in these attractive surroundings I'm looking forward to my meal tonight here. I'd tried to bag a table at Morston Hall on the nights i hadn't already committed myself to some fine dining but that seems to be the hottest ticket in town and I always leave it too late. One day I'll stay there for the weekend and then they'll have to feed me!
Being prepared as a lone diner you're used to arming yourself with a prop or two. Unless you plan to stare into space between courses and interaction with your waiter/waitress you need a book, newspaper or in my case an iPad. I can write or work on my latest photographs when I'm in between courses and if inclined switch to reading whilst eating. Sometimes you end up chatting to the other diners around you and sharing a few travelers' tales but on other occasions you are grateful for the Boy Scout preparedness.
My amuse bouche is delivered, a little espresso cup of Mushroom tarragon soup which had a earthy, thick, creamy taste and is rather good so it bodes well for the rest of the evening. I always feel like Alice after devouring the "eat me" cake when drinking from an espresso cup, I don't get the practice not ever being able to develop a taste for the flavour of coffee, so the novelty has never worn off.
Next my just-off-the-estate pigeon turned up astride a big saucy cross of jus. The pigeon's flesh was moist but just a tiny bit unyielding to my knife. I admired the juxtaposition of the pigeon, the soft rosy slices of fig and crunchy shards of pancetta. And of course the ubiquitous sprinkling of those wispy touches of verdant pea shoots do add a pretty touch.
I'd swallowed a couple of forkfuls of the Wild mushroom, truffle & mascarpone risotto before I pondered the flavour. I couldn't recall what was on the menu that had made it sound so appealing and then remembered the 'truffle'. The mushrooms were very apparent but I really couldn't discern the thing that attracted me to the dish in the first place. It was a pleasant mushroom risotto but not risen to any heady heights with that ever so distinctive perfume of those nuggets of black (or if very lucky white) gold nor an extra creamy unctuousness that I would have expected from the mascarpone. To be honest it was a tad dull! I was thinking that I'd rather reach for some bread and then realized I hadn't been offered any. I scoped the other richly grained, chunky wooden tables and they all seemed to have been either be furnished with a roll or have a few vestiges of torn apart hunk of bread. I shrugged and wondered why I hadn't also been served with any.
After a wait my negligent waiter took my dessert order of Chocolate fondant, peanut butter parfait, praline ice cream. The menu explained that I needed to be patient for ten minutes for the fondant but that is pretty standard so I turned back to my book on my iPad and let the minutes tick by. When I lifted my head to see what was happening I realized the entire restaurant had emptied. It was just me, and still no dessert. I reckoned at least thirty minutes had passed, maybe more, I hadn't exactly set a stopwatch. Suddenly my waiter re-appeared seemingly vaguely shocked to see me still sat there and asked in a fairly accusatory tone whether I'd had my dessert. I would have thought the entirely empty table would be a big clue here unless he thought I'd eaten the plate also. It also occurred around then that the other unusual thing was that I'd never been offered any water. The lack of bread was irritating enough but why was there also no water offered. Do lone diners not eat bread, drink water or really deserve any form of service? All the other diners, either back in their rooms or on the way home now seemed to have had the requisite amount of attention, I could only assume that they just thought "I wanted to be alone" and taken it just too literally!
When my dessert arrived it seemed interesting enough though the trendy use of slate would probably mean some teeth-on-edge knife scraping in the empty restaurant, well at least no one would be disturbed. And ice cream on slate didn't seem such a wise decision if it melted too quickly. I made some tentative tip of spoon forays into the peanut butter parfait. I'd always be perplexed why I like peanuts but have always detested peanut butter. I've tried it a few times, I remember as a child occasionally a peanut butter sandwich would be thrust in my chubby hand in the belief that is what a child would relish - and I didn't. But I could happily scoop as many peanuts as would fit in those hands when the 'nibbles' bowls would appear around the lounge that would preclude my parents' dinner parties. Coming back to the present I decided this parfait was a little too sweet for my taste and focused on the safer chocolate fondant and ice cream. The chocolate fondant was rich and chocolaty, maybe could have been oozier but then on the other hand it might have oozed right off the slate which would have been a dreadful waste of chocolate. The final piece in the triptych was the ice cream, it tasted smooth and faintly resonant of something, but couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. So I spooned another morsel of ice cream whilst referring back to the menu searching for that elusive taste and as I read the word "praline" my tongue discovered a shard of said praline. And to my surprise as the praline melted my mouth exploded with mini firecrackers as that childhood favourite space dust or popping candy had been secreted in the praline. This was a lovely surprise and really lifted the dessert.
I then asked my taciturn waiter for a taxi and to continue with his charming and effusive manner all evening (!) he announces that I'm unlikely to get one! Well, there's a lovely thought, I could just stay in the empty restaurant all night. Fortunately for me someone, possibly the restaurant manager has more wherewithal and rustled up a taxi from Fakenham to take me back from Wells. It transpired that not only did my dessert struggle to make my table it was a no-show on the bill also. And after pointing out the omission he kindly considered the lassitude of its arrival good enough reason for me not to pay for it.
I felted a little cheated by my experience tonight at The Victoria, we'd enjoyed a lovely seasonal lunch there last year of lobster salad and buttery new potatoes and I'd decided then to put them on my list of places to revisit. And even though I thought my risotto was lacking it wasn't the food that left a bit of a sour taste, it was feeling so abandoned verging on ostracized. Was it because I was a solo diner or did I just get terrible luck with my waiter? Well sadly for whatever reason I won't be going back and I personally wouldn't recommend The Victoria at Holkham. I have no doubt that others will have had a different experience (well I hope so) and if my delinquent waiter ever gets to read this I hope he feels suitably chastised and treats the next diners or diner with more consideration.
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