Adultery rarely makes its way into this column but we are raising a glass at Aston Hall Hotel to mark the bicentenary of Lord Byron’s affair with the unhappy Lady Frances Webster.
It was in this very building in 1813, give or take a week or two, that the romantic poet had his wicked way with the wife of his best friend. The cad.
“Perhaps in this very room,” I say to my wife and she shudders. “I hope it was decorated better than this then. The décor drains the life out of you.”
She is right. We have escaped out of a bar of beige and black into a dining room of beige and black with just a touch of aubergine. I put the menu against the wall. It tones in exactly.
“These rooms could have been so nice. They’ve got panelling, dado rails and coving and a good fireplace but look, not a picture, flowers or greenery. It’s so depressing,” she says.
If limp-along lover Lord B, who was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know” (a club foot didn’t stop him, nor did it Dudley Moore) nipped in today for a snifter he would be dismayed at what we see as corporate dullness.
Although, to be fair, the hotel owners don’t seem to have mucked around with the structure of this Grade II listed building, it’s the way they have decorated it which jars.
In the interests of balance, the official view is that this Best Western Hotel’s decor is “a cool, contemporary design.”
Byron wrote of the ‘fatal gift of beauty’ and the hall, which dates from 1772, rebuilt after a fire, is a good looking building. “Steeped in history,” says the hotel website, which doesn’t bother to mention the poet’s connection.
We are here for Sunday lunch (two courses £13.95, three for £15.95) and plan to stroll in the grounds afterwards until the rain puts paid to that.
It’s a short menu with just four choices for the first two courses and my wife sees the fish is coley, Britain’s cheapest fish, although Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, with his sustainability hat on, would be proud of the kitchen.
“What’s the name of that fish I’m not keen on?” she asks. I pause but cannot lie. “It’s coley but they’ve brightened it up by serving it with cockles and chorizo.” As she doesn’t want the beef, belly pork or stuffed mushrooms she orders that.
Byron recommended lobster salad and champagne for ladies so I suppose coley was the closest thing on the menu.
I go for the beef and as it happens she gets the better deal.
But first the starters. Strictly speaking her spinach and ricotta ravioli is tortellini because that’s the shape of the pasta which encloses it. It is OK without being remarkable and comes with rather a lot of peas.
I can say much the same (minus the peas) of my chicken and black pudding ballotine, a cheffy way of describing stuffed chicken leg or thigh with the blood sausage. It doesn’t help that my first bite is a lump of gristle but I’m a fair minded chap and like the way the chef has tried to sustain interest.
It comes with bacon lardons (I’m not convinced it is the pancetta the menu promises), watercress and curried popcorn, although the spices don’t really register.
Coley is one of those fishes which ticks a lot of boxes: it’s sustainable and it’s inexpensive (helping the kitchen to keep to its gross profits) but the fact that it is usually confined to fish pies, fish cakes and fish fingers tells you that it doesn’t tick any boxes marked taste.
Still, the kitchen had done a decent job. It was roasted and stayed firm and moist, not dry, and it was enlivened with chorizo and cockles.
Sadly, the cockles have brought quite a bit of the seashore with them.
She is even less impressed with my roast beef sirloin than I am. At a guess I’d say this finished cooking at 12 (we have booked for 1.45pm), was overcooked to start with and the two solid, chewy slices have been warmed up in a pan and served tepid.
“I thought I was eating a piece of carpet!” she splutters and if that was unkind it was not by very much. Still, as she says, it matches the décor.
By this time in our meal we have usually reached a verdict. “Two stars for the Sunday Lunch Experience,” I say but, with unusual optimism, she urges caution. And she’s right.
Our desserts show a skilful, more confident touch: crème brulee, creamy and light, under the thinnest of crisp caramel, with a ‘gorgeous’ berry compote, and an airy jam sponge with rather too much custard in danger of splitting. If I have to be picky it should have been thicker.
But could there be in the Aston Hall Hotel kitchen a pastry chef longing for the broad sunlit uplands of classier kitchens?
We pay £31.90 for food, plus £12.50 for two large glasses of moderate, overpriced wine and £1.90 for an orange juice, totalling £46.30 for a rather beige experience.
Outside the weather makes things look, well, beige.