The (Very) Red Room

41a Market Street, Hatherleigh     Tel:  01837 811548     Email: theredr@hotmail.co.uk

Opening hours:  Mon-Sat:  5.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m.   Sun:  Noon to 3.00 p.m.

red_roomI think it’s safe to say we would all love to have a decent place to eat out round here that doesn’t cause an involuntary gasp when that innocuous-looking slip of paper arrives at the end of the meal. So there was a faint ripple of excitement when it became known that a new establishment in Hatherleigh would soon be open for business. And when it opened its doors prematurely to torment spectators of the Olympic torch with the heady fragrance of fried bacon, hopes began to run high. Here was somebody who knew what they were doing. In fact, chef proprietor Neil Wright can claim twenty-two years in the business, and has returned to the town to pursue this long-awaited adventure.

Strangely, the fanfare never really built past the first chord. It’s difficult to find any more information about Neil and his new project. There is no website (bar an out-dated Facebook page) and calls to the bistro are sometimes met by an anonymous answerphone, or simply remain unanswered. I figured this could be a good sign – a small team running a very popular restaurant, putting all their energies into creating a fine dining experience for the good denizens of West Devon. Initial reviews and reports certainly suggested this. So it was that Tony, Angela, Simon and your roving répas reporter found ourselves sat expectantly in the red glow of the very red Red Room.

The oxblood colour scheme extends to the table runners, napkins and cushions, with the only respite offered by dark wood furniture and pale curtains, though these too were trimmed with a red pelmet. It’s all very extrovert. So when the service could fairly be described as somewhat introverted, there seemed to be a bit of a personality clash going on. We waited a good half an hour before our order was taken, then waited again for the arrival of the first course.

Fortunately, there is no wait for a drink, because here the restaurant has adopted a very welcome and enlightened policy – you can Bring Your Own for a very reasonable corkage fee of £1. However, a request for sparkling water was met with an apology and an announcement that they only have small bottles. Fine with me, but why not offer large bottles too? Maybe they had run out?

A similar request made later for bread – to mop up the delectable sauce – was met with some surprise, then the statement that we would have to be charged for this. We were all of the opinion that bread should be given freely in restaurants – unless a Ryanair pricing policy is adopted, whereby the headline rock bottom price is bolstered by every last option having a cliff top price on its head. At roughly £6 for a starter and £15 for a main course, I don’t believe this is the case here. However, when it arrived in its little basket, we found the bread had been warmed and was actually fabulous.

It was even stranger that, when presented with the bill later, this consisted of just the total sum. There was no breakdown whatsoever. Maybe the breakdown was the till – or even the management?

So, what was the food like? Well, mostly it was pretty good. Starters of scallops and black pudding with aforementioned sauce were very tasty. A plate piled high with golden squid rings got the thumbs up from Angela.

The men enjoyed some manly steaks for their main course, but both agreed they could more accurately be described as “medium” rather than the “rare” they ordered. Angela and I both had duck legs and they were very good.

But the puddings let them down. The blokes’ brownies failed to score highly on the squidgy-o-meter, despite a good swim in a large pool of chocolate sauce. And the “Trio of Desserts” Angela and I shared consisted of a small glass of gooseberry posset (not the lemon advertised), a bland chocolate tart, and an underwhelming slice of redcurrant meringue pie.

In another dichotomy, but what could prove to be a real crowd pleaser, there are wood-fired pizzas on offer – to eat in or takeaway. Inevitably, though, this means there are likely to be people hanging around the bar close to the tables. The corner spot complete with bench designed for this purpose, no doubt from an earlier incarnation, has instead been requisitioned for diners. The couple perched there didn’t look very comfortable. (However, given that hardly a word passed between them during their entire meal, there may have been something more fundamental than backache going on.) It doesn’t help that the bar area is flooded with retina-searing light from a multi-bulb chandelier. The candle on our table remained unloved and unlit. Mood is good in lighting, but not in customers, especially in a restaurant.

I hope these niggles are just teething troubles. I would really like this place to succeed – so I would say go and try it. Because if it goes the same way as its predecessors, Simon isn’t going to get a break from cooking at all ….

Helen Crossley

October 2012 (Autumn issue)