The Thomas Lord, West Meon, Hampshire

Yes, another in the sequence of gastropub reviews, and, I’m pleased to say, one deserving of the title.  Indeed, an early contender for most memorable meal of the year, once you strip out the snobbish expectations of Michelin et al.  The Thomas Lord, located in a small Hampshire village but evidently booked out on a very regular basis, wins plaudits (including two AA rosettes) for getting right the vital things that make eating out a pleasurable experience.

The first thing you notice upon parking is a sizeable kitchen garden, supplying splendid veg and herbs – always a good sign.  As you enter, you notice a hugely enticing environment, certainly if you enjoy the English country pub.  The decor has accumulated over time, rather than being painted on by the yard.  Cricket memorabilia abounds, this being close to the original home of cricket (I can just picture Peter Cook intoning, “not many people know that.”)  Comforting sofas and open log fires are much in evidence – this is not for those expecting in-your-face modern decor, but for people who want to relax and enjoy the ambience, take time over a meal and a few drinks, rather than worry about whether the seats match.

Initial reactions are confirmed by service that is uniformly friendly, helpful, professional, knowledgeable and good-humoured.  Having been served by many a grumpy waiter over the years, I kept waiting for his facade to crack and for Basil Fawlty to emerge from within.  Alas, our waiter charmed from beginning to end – my only sadness being that while the credit card bill (correctly) did not allow an option for gratuities, I had no cash on me to reward exceptional performance.  Luckily for him, there will be a next time…

The menu is also encouraging.  Not too many choices to blind the diner, in fact few enough to confirm this to be a fresh food restaurant taking pride in its food, not yet another pub with a hot microwave churning out identikit meals.  In fact, the ingredients are carefully sourced, seasonal and top notch, for which the TL deserves much credit.

We started with pigeon breast artfully arranged atop a wave of creamed swede, with a crisp rasher of bacon like a surfboard.  A tian of zingingly fresh crab came on a crouton surrounded by splodges of  sweet chilli and satisfied to the last mouthful.  Personally, I’d prefer a small puddle than the cheffy touch of dripping sauces, but I seem to be in a minority here.

Main courses proved a problem, not least because we wanted all five between us.  Plaice, rib eye steak and duck breast would have been just as inviting, but the mushroom lasagne and crisp braised shoulder of lamb chosen were both masterpieces of their respective art – the pressed lamb came as a circle of tender gooey meat with a crunchy sea salt topping.

Perhaps it’s just as easy to be over-fulsome in praise as it is to carp, but it would be sniffy to find any serious criticism of these dishes – they truly hit the spot.  Probably the best I can do is say that the oval of  crushed “minted potatoes” were not especially minty.  However, the rosemary gravy did arrive in a pleasing puddle, so that is forgiven!

Similar selection issues emerged with desserts, but an impossibly rich chocolate marquise (which the waiter claimed to spell instant diabetes) and a truly wonderful cheeseboard, served in perfect condition and accompanied by glorious pickles and the charcoal biscuits that send my mother into a thousand ecstasies. My coffee was a tad cold but I chose not to comment – it was at least strong and full-bodied and mitigated by the fact that we found a welcome diversion in the excellent collection of second hand books, all for sale, on the shelves all around the dining room.  My companion kindly bought me a splendid volume of W S Gilbert’s Savoy Operas for 50p, which went towards the church fund!!

In summary:  The Thomas Lord is not perfect, but pretty damned good, certainly worthy of a second visit to confirm findings, and top marks for charm, dedication and excellence.

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