This restaurant is known locally as the Silver Lotus, which is what it used to be called. Why it changed to the Plum Valley is not recorded, but most regulars I’ve ever come across recall it by the former and look blank if you mention the latter. The place is still the same, residing at the bottom end of the high street of sleepy market town Witham, deep into Essex but handily placed just off the A12 between Chelmsford and Colchester. It was recommended by several local friends, and let’s face it – worth of mouth and a buzz is what keeps the restaurant business humming. Good feedback is always to die for!
At face value it looks a restaurant in the modern idiom, by which I mean fairly anonymous but pleasant, contained within a large-fronted retail space on a street of genteel aged buildings. It’s all there: comfortable and substantial seats, well-presented tables, nondescript artwork on the walls, a well-equipped bar at the far end, and, bizarrely out of place against their surroundings, Chinese lanterns hung over the inset halogen spotlights in the ceiling.
By rights, you would think this to be a Chinese/Oriental restaurant at the innovative end of the market, but no. Plum Valley known as a buffet restaurant serving “Chinese-Indian fusion” food – presumably at the demand of its client base. The description is wholly misleading: it serves oft-tried Chinese and Indian specialities, plus the occasional pan-Asian dish, thankfully not any sort of hybrid. For these purposes, I will categorise it as an all-purpose Asian restaurant.
Technically it isn’t a self-service buffet since there is no cabinet storing pre-cooked food from which to help oneself, so the more correct description, as noted on the menus, is “set price, all you can eat.” Sounds tempting, though in practice I doubt people over-load with dishes to anything like the same extent that they would in a true buffet. The big benefit is that the food is cooked fresh to order, though this can prove something of a double-edged sword for people in a hurry to eat.
Bear in mind that mother and I walked into Plum Valley at its stated opening time of 1pm on a Sunday. Sunday lunchtimes are generally big business for popular restaurants, but PV was totally deserted. We were outnumbered by staff at a ratio of 3:1 (they were, presumably, single-handed in the kitchen), and it was not until we left two hours later that another couple were shown to a nearby table.
This did not exactly improve the atmosphere. I’m not sure why it was not doing business that lunchtime, but you’d think there would get full attention of the staff under those circumstances. Well, yes and no, mostly no: when asked for help our waiter, a shy young lad, was helpful and attentive, but he did more than a little pacing about and steering well clear of our table. Maybe it was the music that held his attention, starting with bizarre Chinese pop before graduating to slightly arthritic pop of Livin’ La Vida Loca vintage.
We began with a menu of starters, one side Chinese and the other Indian, while munching on a basket of prawn crackers and papadums, dipped in various Chinese and Indian condiments and washed down with my traditional drink at such establishments, green tea. From the restaurant perspective these snacks are a good way to fill up the punters so they order less of the expensive stuff. Less wastage is always to the benefit of the restaurant, and set price supplemented by drinks and desserts mounts up. In practice, value for money is not that much different here than any similar Asian establishment.
Having ordered the first courses – mixed Indian starters (rather fewer than listed on the menu, as it turns out, but since we could order more that was not a problem), a king prawn poori and a plate of squid, the munching of crispy bits went on some while until the kitchen eventually caught up, approximately 25 minutes later. In fact the starters were really rather good. They were indeed cooked fresh to order, and full credit for that, but we wondered how well they would cope with order fulfilment were every table filled to capacity.
Only when they were completed were we presented with the main course menu, a sizeable epic in the sticky-backed plastic much beloved by Blue Peter. Surely it would not have cost them anything to take orders for starters and main courses at the same time, particularly since the kitchen was not exactly rushing to provide food without delay? At any rate, the main courses also took their time to arrive, but were pretty good when they did.
We selected an Indian combination of dishes, some of which were lukewarm by the time they arrived but not stone cold as with Baumann’s Brasserie. Both the king prawn jalfrezi and lamb tikka chana bhuna were pretty good, though the chilli-cheese-coriander naan was heavily singed around the edges. Happily, the burnt bits proved to my mother’s taste, so the food disappeared in short order. Doubtless we could have ordered more main courses, had we been of the American disposition to taking literally the words “as much as you can eat,” but being British our natural reserve applied and we chose not to be piggy, nor yet to ask for a doggy bag.
In any case, staff at Plum Valley are quite happy for you to finish main courses in order to present a dessert menu, one of those collections of ice-cream based titillations with which to tempt you, bought in wholesale from suppliers and sold at a stiff markup, though again they pleased my mother – apart from the surprising lack of kulfi. She insisted I choose one so choose one I did, a frothy concoction with vanilla ice cream, glazed almonds and honey. Hers contained mango and I know not what else.
Cut to the chase: I’d be happy to go back to Plum Valley with friends for one very good reason, namely that the food proved to be of very decent quality and not to have suffered by virtue of the “fusion” label. Certainly demonstrates that if you leave aside the hyperbole of restaurant marketing, what really counts are food and service, in that order. This is not Michelin-starred food, but of its type it was more than reasonable.
PV was certainly worthy of the reputation it has acquired. However, I’d much prefer to go again on a slightly busier evening where staff are more attentive and the kitchen better staffed, and I’d certainly ask to order food in one go – unless I’d come equipped with some cabaret to keep my party entertained for an hour first!