Little Chef versus The Pheasant at Keyston

I don't normally go in for restaurant reviews.  Being a critic has never interested me, and I don't know much about food and drink.  After a dichotomous pair of recent A-road culinary experiences, however, I feel the need to break that trend.

The two eateries in question are the Little Chef on the southbound A1 near Peterborough, and The Pheasant at Keyston, a gastropub in Cambridgeshire, not far off the A14.  We visited the former on the way down to Stansted Airport, prior to flying to Asturias (about which I will blog in due course), and the latter on the way back.

Stopping at the Little Chef was primarily a response to being close to Cambridge, being hungry, and having run out of dining ideas.  I'd heard that the menu had been upgraded by Heston Blumenthal, so was vaguely curious to find out what was in store, but it was mainly about convenience.

The place was nearly empty, so we didn't have to wait long to be seated and served.  This was fine, as we weren't planning to stay too long, and we jumped straight into the mains.  The offerings didn't look very Blumenthalian, but I went for the vague curiosity of a pesto and mozzarella burger, whilst H chose lasagne.

When they arrived, our meals certainly didn't taste Blumenthalian either: H's lasagne was unremarkable, and my burger was rather dry and lacking in flavour.  But this was a Little Chef after all, and it would have been foolish to enter the place with a grand sense of expectation.  We paid our bill and hit the road again.

Our expectations were slightly higher on the way back, having made the decision that we would find a good pub somewhere along the A14.  Surprisingly, though, there weren't any to be seen as we exited Cambridge, and we'd almost left Cambridgeshire when we spotted the sign to the Pheasant at Keyston.

Having assumed it was close to the road, we were slightly confused when we had to drive for quite a while. It turned out to be at the end of a series of winding lanes at the far side of the village of Keyston.  When we finally sighted the place, it looked rather nice, so we parked up and walked to the main door.

Being pretty much starving, we didn't spend long perusing the menu on the wall by the front door, and stepped inside. Even though the food clearly wasn't your standard pub grub, and the prices a bit higher than we'd subconsciously expected to pay, it was going to be a far cry from our outbound dinner.

Upon entering the premises, we were immediately asked if we wanted an aperitif in the bar, but dinner was all we were interested in, so we declined and were led through to the dining area. At this point, alarm bells had begun to ring in my brain, as I was clearly a) much too northern*, and b) much too scruffy to be dining in the establishment.  The final ringing sound came when we were handed the menu by the far-from-jolly waitress.

I couldn't say exactly what I wanted to eat, but it wasn't what was on offer. I didn't desire anything fancy, but fancy was all there was.  Having taken a table, though, and being nothing if not politely acquiescent, we couldn't easily get up and scarper again.

So H ordered some lamb, and I chose the poultry dish.  This meant I had the pleasure of asking for a spatchcock of quail, possibly becoming the first person from Braunstone Frith ever to do so. We also requested some chips, which were listed as one of the side dishes, but, as this was a classy establishment, only under the name of 'hand-slivered oil-bathed pommes frites' (or some such).

It was the same with the mash, which was 'crushed baby new potatoes', even though, when it arrived, it was evidently just mash.  The lamb that sat next to it on H's plate was tiny, and overwhelmed by an accompaniment of difficult-to-identify comestibles, one that was definitely a sausage, and one that looked a bit like a fish-finger, all served on a bed of samphire.

At the table next to us, a well-heeled, middle-aged couple conversed beautifully, making sure that 'darling' was used in every sentence, and to this backdrop, I did battle with my quail.  I assume the verb 'to quail' comes from someone like me trying to eat something like this in a setting like that, as I had no idea what to do with such a small bird, and was sure that whatever I did would be wrong. In the end, I gave up faffing and used my evolutionary tools, employing hands and teeth.

When we'd picked our way through fussy, fiddly food as best we could, we declined the offer of anything further, paid our £50-odd quid bill, and shuffled out again.

It had been an odd experience.  The food wasn't bad, but it was unnecessarily complicated.  It felt as though the owners were trying their utmost to show off their foodiness, to appeal to a clientele more interested in style than content.

It was something of a shock, therefore, to learn afterwards that we had dined in the Best British Restaurant 2009, according to Gordon Ramsay's F Word.  Indeed, searching online, most of the reviews of The Pheasant are glowing; the Telegraph's Zoe Williams loved the food, for example.

We just found it to be fussy, pretentious and a little bit offal.  It wasn't bad, it was just trying much too hard to be clever.

Ironically, if we'd gone a few miles further on we'd have reached the Kettering West branch of Little Chef, which apparently does feature the new Heston Blumenthal menu.  And given the choice again, I know which of the two I'd be going to.

*despite being from a town situated only about 40 miles to the north-west of Keyston.