Review by Fiona Duncan, published 21st June 2010.
With news of two much-deserved awards for outstanding skill and service within the hospitality industry, my thoughts focused this week on the generally ropey state of hotel service in this country.
There are of course, as the awards demonstrate, exceptions. Gerard Basset, most sympatique of Frenchmen, has realised his long-held ambition to win the World Sommelier Championship in Chile. And where does the world’s best sommelier offer his personally chosen cellar? From an easy going brasserie style restaurant, Terravina, near Southampton. Basset’s courteousness and modesty remain undented, his sense of self-importance: zero.
Over at Bray, in my favourite gourmet restaurant (no, it’s not the Fat Duck) resides my favourite maître d’. In Michel Roux’ timeless Waterside Inn, dedicated Diego Masciagna choreographs service of balletic artistry, while his skill in boning a sole or transforming a whole lobster in a matter of seconds into an elegant symphony on the plate before your eyes with only a white linen napkin to aid him is nothing short of miraculous.
Masciagna has been awarded the Grand Prix de l’Art de Salle by the Académie Internationale de Gastronomie, chosen from 31 countries, the Oscar of maître d-dom. His ambition now? To pass on his skill and passion by founding a training academy. I hope he succeeds; we need it.
And so, this week, I feel particularly unequal to hopeless, hapless hotel service and yearn for pitch perfect attendance that never jars and is precisely in tune with the establishment in which it’s offered, however ritzy or humble. Instinctively – this is sad – I find myself heading not for a hotel, where the danger of poor service is ever present, but for a private house with just four bedrooms in glorious countryside near Dorchester.
If there were an Oscar for service in this sector of the hotel trade, no one would deserve it more than Susie and Martyn Lee. Hardly surprising that they tell me their establishment is being used more and more as a hotel than a fleeting b & b, with guests wanting to linger after breakfast and return in time for tea.
So do I. The Wooden Cabbage (the local name for the locally stunted oak trees) is an enlarged keeper’s cottage with a sweeping, showstopping view of Hardy Country that will have you gawping like a child in a sweetshop. There are housemartins under the eaves, the meadow slopes past our bedroom window, the airy house is stylishly decorated with family antiques, Martyn’s vegetable garden is a marvel and Susie makes use of the produce for her delicious breakfasts and dinners on request. Like Basset and Masciagna they are warm and calm but never intrusive, and though they make their work appear effortless, dedication, professionalism and experience (they previously owned two successful inns) are at the root of what they achieve. If you want to experience the finest, least irritating service that British hotels can offer, come to the Wooden Cabbage.
East Chelborough (01935 83362; www.woodencabbage.co.uk). Doubles £90 per night, including breakfast. Dinner £30, including wine. Access difficult for guests with disabilities. Terravina (02380 293784; www.hotelterravina.co.uk); Waterside Inn (01628 620691; www.waterside-inn.co.uk).