The good sense in eating from a set menu has been nowhere better illustrated for me recently than on a Saturday lunchtime visit to The Inn at Farnborough, near Banbury. Rosemarie enjoyed an excellent three-course meal — seafood chowder, smoked haddock, meringue with lashings of strawberries — which cost just £12.75. That was just a pound more than the price of my starter.
Mind you, that starter of seared king scallops was, by any standards, an expensive one. I ordered it, in fact, precisely to discover what was supplied for the money. The answer was not very much. There were four modest-sized scallops, without the coral, served with little pieces of crispy bacon, thin slices of uncooked fennel, and a spring onion and chive dressing. Everything was delicious — the scallops especially so, with none of the rubberiness that often spoils this type of seafood — but not £11.95 delicious.
Moving on to the main course, however, I could hardly complain when the same price exactly was charged for a perfect roast Cornish plaice. Of plate-filling dimension, it was cooked to a turn, the flesh falling easily from the bones, and served with cornichons, capers, spinach and baby potatoes. Rather than butter, it came with virgin oil supplied presumably (as I learned from a sign on the bar) by the Spanish estate from which the Inn regularly takes delivery.
Less satisfactory was my cheese course. Seeking information of the varieties on offer from the polite and helpful young Polish waitress, I was informed there was brie, cheddar and stilton. These sounded boring, and were. The first was very far from being ripe, as is so often the case these days with the ‘elf and safety’ insistence on refrigeration and the second was pretty tasteless mousetrap. Only the stilton passed muster. Instead of the advertised oatmeal biscuits, I got assorted crackers (Jacob’s or similar). There were strips of celery and decent chutney. The cost: £7.
Now let’s see what Rosemarie had. The seafood chowder she began with was rich and packed with flavour — possibly, we thought, based on the mussel and tiger prawn bisque with cognac that figures on the main menu, padded out with potato and sweetcorn. There was plenty of it, too.
Next came a decent-size chunk of poached smoked haddock on a bed of horseradish mash (a great idea for home consumption, we thought), with buttered spinach and chive beurre blanc. Finally, her pud was a crumbly melt-in-the-mouth perfectly white meringue with a huge pile of strawberries — more than enough to allow me to try some — and vanilla cream. Great value, as I said.
This was our first visit in more than six years to the Inn, and we had been too long away. Amid stunningly pretty countryside close to Banbury, the village is built in mellow Hornton stone. The Inn is a picture, without and within, and boasts an old-fashioned bar serving Hookie — we tried some — straight from the barrel.
There are special events throughout the week, including a half-price à la carte night on Monday — now that’s when to try those scallops! — and fish cakes and a glass of bubbly for £10.95 on Fridays.
Ever a believer in sex equality, however, I must voice the strongest disapproval of Tuesday’s offer. This allows for dining off the prix fixe menu all night and half-price house wines, but is available only to groups of women. Now, where did I put that dress?