Review by Fiona Duncan, published 25th February 2007.
Very frustrating, the New French Partridge. It's nearly there, but not quite. As a setting for a restaurant with rooms, The Grange, as it was called in the days when it was a private house of consequence, has much to recommend it. For travellers wishing to break their journey, it's just off the M1; for walkers and nature lovers, it's surrounded by beautiful, little-visited countryside, threaded by the Great Ouse and Grand Union Canal; for locals, it's the only decent eating place for miles around; and for my bookish husband, it's very, very exciting because it's in the county where Jane Austen based Mansfield Park.
The house is a pleasing, creeper-covered old building, with a terrace for summer. We were greeted by owner Ian Oakenfull, who, with his partner Tanya Bannerjee, bought it in 2002 (before lying empty it had been a restaurant called The French Partridge - hence the "New"). They refurbished and reopened the restaurant almost straight away, and later added the bedrooms. Like the other rooms I saw, our bedroom was pretty - brass bed, matching Danish-style stencilled dressing table and chest of drawers, white armchair, Victorian-style prints on the walls, à la mode chandelier - but somehow not enveloping, as if it had been put together from furniture catalogues, with none of the personal touches that make a hotel room special. This feeling was not helped by the notice tacked to the back of the door: "The following items have been checked prior to your check-in by housekeeping staff and management: two bathmats; two hand towels; two bath robes; four pillows; hairdryer; electric fan; four wooden hangers. Any missing items will be charged to your account on departure". No chance of smuggling a couple of pillows, a pile of hangers and an electric fan out of the hotel, then. Shame about that, but I'd rather have been trusted in the first place.
If the bedrooms lack warmth, the two sitting rooms are cosy, one of them prettily Victorian in feel. Here guests consult the menu and Sardar, the charming Turkish restaurant manager, takes orders. The dining room is also welcoming, with sweeping, deep purple curtains, pretty balloon-back chairs, an antique sideboard, and candles and flowers on white tablecloths.
Dinner, to continue the theme, was nearly there. It was certainly ample: four courses on a set menu (for a hefty £41.50 per person), with promising amuses-bouches, agreeable starters, a soupçon each of butternut squash risotto and leek and potato consommé with tempura haddock, followed by a partridge for my husband and an unexciting mushroom gnocchi for myself. It was all fine, but not special - and too expensive. We shared a bitter marmalade soufflé, failed to make it to the cellar bar for coffee, and staggered to our room, followed by Sardar, who presented us with a little box of handmade chocolates. "You disappeared before I could give you these," he said. How thoughtful.
Breakfast included a colourful array of fruits. Tanya breezed in (they live two villages away) to serve it, leaving her dogs in the car. They used to be outside caterers, she told us, always on the road until they decided to put down roots. Perhaps that's what we have here: catering with flair, instead of cooking and entertaining with commitment.