Review by Fiona Duncan, published 14th January 2007.
Within minutes of arriving at the Three Lions in Stuckton I was immersed in an outdoor hot tub, complete with underwater lights. I'd been told they had one, and as I fought my way out of London in the Friday evening traffic, the thought of a warm dip in the cold night air became irresistible. Reclining among the bubbles, glass of wine in hand, I watched the stars begin to prick the clear evening sky and reflected that no fancy hotel spa, no fleet of therapists, could have relaxed me more than this moulded plastic box in a family garden.
Mike Womersley, proprietor-chef of the Three Lions, which is located in a country lane near Fordingbridge, is another hotelier who is scratching his head to know how best to describe his operation. "I don't like 'gastropub'," he says, "or 'restaurant with rooms'. I think the most accurate description for us is 'English auberge'." I agree.
Having spent some of my childhood in France, I was brought up on auberges. The best of them are places that, like this one, are owned and run by the chef and his wife, make few concessions to fashion, but are clean and comfortable. Although the restaurant lies at the heart, guests staying the night are not neglected. Staff are local, and the properly prepared cuisine bourgeois attracts a loyal following. On all counts, the Three Lions fits the description.
Before dinner, we fell to talking about mushrooms with Jayne, Womersley's wife. Last autumn was a bumper one for wild fungi, but each time I'd gone hunting for ceps on my New Forest patch the Italians and Poles had got there first. The Womersleys, who regularly go mushrooming en famille, were having much better luck and, as a treat, they gave us, between starter and main course, a dish each of local ceps, simply sautéd in butter and herbs: marvellous and very auberge.
Womersley, who has cooked in some top restaurants, had a Michelin star once, but he's not a man to cook to other people's requirements. He serves what he wants, how he wants, with the preferences of his (many retired) customers, not of the Michelin men, in mind. His simply described food is very accomplished, owing much to French cuisine, but also to local English produce. My friend Lui, the most exacting and yet – infuriatingly – the slimmest gourmet I know, opted for vine-roasted partridge. and I chose venison with figs and port: both superb, as were the perfectly judged vegetables and the desserts, especially Jayne's special hot chocolate surprise.
I'll gloss over the decoration at the Three Lions, a plain redbrick house. All right then, just a peep: like a neat suburban semi, with pine tables and chairs, flesh-coloured wood-chip wallpaper and orange fruit-bowl curtains clashing merrily with hectic red-patterned carpet. Zero for style, double zero for trendy, but do you know what? I don't care. The food's the thing, and the hospitality.
The bedroom, in an annexe, is new, spotless and tame. My bête noire, a cuddly toy (a lion, of course), reclines on the large bed. Normally, in hotels, these things get thrown by me across the room, but I'm so enamoured of the Three Lions that when I wake in the morning I find it, unaccountably, in my arms.
Stuckton, Hampshire (01425 652489; www.thethreelionsrestaurant.co.uk). Doubles £75 to £115 per night including breakfast.