Colleys in Lechlade-on-Thames in the Cotswolds, offers fine dining and a unique experience. There is no written menu, but one seating each evening of a four-course dinner.
Colleys Lechlade is a theatrical show-stopper, with lashings of drama and mountains of desserts all making for an outstanding – and highly unique – dining experience, well worth the wait.
There are some things that the British do exceptionally well – soap operas, sarcastic humour and brewing a smashing cup of tea for starters, and let’s not forget the delicate art of queuing. Whether it’s at a bus stop or supermarket checkout, as a nation we are without a doubt the most orderly queuers on the planet. But, faced with a courteous line forming outside Colleys in Lechlade, we were surprised to say the least.
Since 1988, Colleys has opened for dinner at 7.30pm on the dot. And unprepared diners – such as me and my companion arriving without a jacket on a choppy autumn evening, perhaps hoping for a pre-dinner drink – can be found patiently standing in the cobbled courtyard in the centre of the Cotswold town until the clocks show half-past.
This eccentric start to the evening might sound a little pretentious, but our shivers soon turned to mounting excitement. The growing queue almost squealed collectively as the doors were unlocked and we bustled into the warm, candlelit restaurant – after being ticked off the reservation list reminiscent of a school register by an efficient and inviting restaurant manager, that is.
With every table in the whole restaurant seated at once, there was none of the waiting for the evening to warm-up or awkward silences you might find elsewhere – the atmosphere was electric immediately, much like the velvet curtains being lifted on a West End show. And the theatrics certainly didn’t end there.
Wine glasses filled with an Italian chardonnay, we were given a choice of three starters: chunky roast potatoes cooked in duck fat with a creamy hollandaise sauce, accompanied by crispy bacon, was gobbled up opposite me. While I opted for the more daring-sounding Thai sweet and sour salmon salad with pineapple, coriander and crunchy bean sprouts, that proved a fresh, punchy and almost good-for-you taste of Asia.
Whilst it can be easy to overlook a humble soup, the second course was a steaming tureen for two of the most moreish homemade cauliflower cheese variety – which didn’t sit between us for long before it was scraped up greedily – proving a hearty, warming and utterly delicious highlight of the evening.
The choices for the main course, described by the waiter as there was no written menu, were to our surprise paraded through the dining room on huge platters by a stream of staff – with an impressive slab of juicy beef receiving the loudest mumbles of approval.
I opted for the homemade chicken tikka massala, however, a far cry from many a curry house version of the namesake, instead providing a creative, light and fresher-than-fresh modern interpretation, accompanied by perfectly-cooked basmati rice and a tangy mint raita.
While opposite me, sea bass was selected as the fish dish of the day – receiving equally high praise, and an equally clean plate. Like the starters, and the soup, both main courses were perfectly seasoned – in fact, the salt and pepper wasn’t reached for once throughout the evening.
While waistlines were expanding by the glorious minute, more pomp and circumstance ensued – with a promenade worthy of carnival floats and tickertape. This time, it was the desserts on parade, with a mountainous steamed pudding and an impressive stack of profiteroles the stars of the show – much to the delight of the wide-eyed diners.
Despite providing a glitzy wow factor to the proceedings, the aforementioned profiteroles certainly didn’t disappoint on the taste front either, snapped-up by seemingly everyone in the dining room. The Colleys bread and butter pudding with lashings of custard created a heated argument with my dining companion however, as she insisted it beat the classic choux dessert hands-down despite my disbelieving protests.
And, did I mention second helpings of desserts are almost mandatory? The chance to try the dense and golden syrup steamed pudding with cream, as well as a helping of blackberry ice-cream with apple shortcake were seized by us second time around. And there wasn’t a single diner who didn’t also relish the opportunity for more helpings of the homemade desserts that have made Colleys a Gloucestershire institution.
While sipping coffee, our discussion turned to the potential drawbacks of dining at Colleys – grumbling being something else the British are particularly good at – and at a stretch we offered that whilst the fortnightly-updated menu might aim to cater for both daring and traditional appetites, with limited choices the fussiest eaters might not always find something they like, particularly if they are vegetarian.
But, handed a very reasonable bill from a young waiter who had provided a prompt, polite and impeccable service throughout the evening, we agreed that dining at Colleys Lechlade had been nothing short of an exceptional experience. Unique, just a little eccentric, and offering a real sense of occasion – like the many regulars seated around us, we agreed we would unequivocally be found queuing outside for an evening here again soon.
The four-course dinner at Colleys Lechlade costs £24.95 per person Monday to Thursday, £28.95 per person on Fridays, and £29.95 per person on Saturdays.
By James Fyrne
Monday 09 November 2009
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