The old boy opposite us was deep into the hotel’s copy of Classic Car Magazine when he and his wife were called in to Sunday lunch.
“Latest edition, too. Much better than reading about gardens and interiors. Are you interested in old cars?”
Sadly no. So had he got one?
“Four. Mostly Jaguars.”
His wife begged to differ. She held up all five fingers of one hand behind his back as they went into the dining room.
Later, over coffee and petit fours, he spoke fondly of his motors. “After a while they become more than bits of metal, more like family. I sent a birthday card to the 1964 model.”
In its way, Sunday lunch at the Riverside House Hotel, Ashford-in-the Water, is also a classic, like those Jaguars. Head chef John Whelan has been there for 18 years so he’s had time to get it right.
I have had plenty of roast beef dinners in my time but it’s hard to think of a better one. So if you don’t mind I’m going to make a bit of a song and dance about this beef, glorious beef.
It was local meat, forerib, hung for 28 days and tenderly cooked to a blissful pink. At every mouthful your tastebuds dived into the deep end because there was such a depth of flavour.
The two slices, marbled with sweet fat, were gratifyingly thick but the meat was as tender as a baby’s bum.
The gravy, enriched with bone stock and full of goodness, deserves a whole paragraph to itself, so it has.
But don’t take my word for it. I overheard several customers, all of them men, compliment the kitchen on the beef.
The countryside around Ashford looks like it has been manicured. Riverside House, on the banks of the Wye at one end of the village, is the sort of place you’d bring a foreigner if you wanted to show them the essence of Ye Olde Englande.
Built over a century and half between 1620 and 1760, the look is of mellowed stone, big bay windows and ivy-covered walls. Inside, the bar has comfy leather armchairs under low beams, panelled walls, silk flowers, candles, rifles over the mantelpiece and whisky bottles on the counter. The only thing that’s missing is a stuffed stag’s head.
“Quaint and old-fashioned but delightful,” says reviews on TripAdvisor and that about sums it up.
It’s not a place for young families looking for a hotel. “In order to preserve the tranquillity of our patrons, we regrettably do not allow children below the age of 16 years to stay,” says the website. They can eat, though. The solitary youngster present was exemplary.
The menu is traditional. I don’t want arty-farty on a Sunday and the Riverside’s customers certainly don’t. I had a bet with myself before we arrived there would be plaice on the menu.
I won. There is, along with beef and roast lamb. Three courses here cost £24.95 and they throw in coffee with petit fours. As this can cost an extra tenner elsewhere we feel reassured no one is trying to fleece us.
I am a little surprised to be asked to order our desserts before our meal. “In case we run out,” says the restaurant manager.
My ham hock starter is first class, large tender pieces of meat instead of strands, and veined with chopped herbs. A home-made chutney accompanies it.
My wife’s starter is more or less an assembly, smoked salmon and prawn salad, but “this salmon is really good,” says my wife.
I’ve banged on long enough about the beef. I’d like to say it was partnered by a gloriously puffy Yorkshire Pudding but instead I got three mini ones, like large thimbles. Roast potatoes and crisp vegetables rounded things off.
My wife had the plaice, a grilled fillet over some crushed new potatoes with a lemon flavoured sauce. Simple yet good.
My glass of rioja was a little characterless but after that beef I was prepared to forgive anything.
Well, not perhaps the iced vanilla panna cotta (so that’s why they asked for the order, to give it time to defrost. In which case, it hadn’t).
It was still Arctic cold and I lost the taste and texture of a proper panna cotta and gained nothing in return. A vanilla cheesecake (has chef Whelan got a consignment of vanilla pods to use up?) was, by contrast, elegant.
Our bill, with a couple of glasses of wine and sparkling Derbyshire water, came to £68.50.
A classic Sunday lunch.