“ Cuisine: Traditional British / Location: 1 St. John Street, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2SD „
~My Not Very Misspent Youth~
Forget sex and drugs and rock and roll - my youth was much more sedate. Mind you, growing up in a village near a quiet country market town didn't offer too many wild distractions in the 1980s. When I was in my last year at school the White Hart in Salisbury was one of the Friday or Saturday night haunts of the crowd I hung out with. It was at that time the poshest place in town and it may well still be so. It was the sort of place where a man in a smart black suit played cheesy tunes on a grand piano whilst we sipped our drinks in their etched monogrammed glasses as slowly as possible and we thought we were sooooooo cool. Looking back it's amazing we didn't get thrown out for being far too low-rent for the hotel but they never chucked us out and we were probably making the place look more lively by being a good forty years younger than most of the other people in the bar.
Since those days the White Hart has changed hands a few times and is currently owned by the Accor group who run it as one of their nicer Mercure Hotels. I hadn't been in the White Hart in a 25 years so when my parents booked a table there for Sunday lunch I was quite excited to go back and see if it was still a special place.
~Out with the Olds~
My mother is currently on crutches after a hip replacement operation a few weeks ago so we took the car. My folks live only a five to ten minute walk away but Mum would have struggled and we had no problems at all to find space in the hotel car park. We grabbed the space closest to the disabled parking spaces and she shuffled in. From the car park it's a very short hobble across a pretty terrace covered with planters bursting with spring flowers to reach the restaurant.
I've never eaten in the White Hart so I had no idea what to expect. The Squires Restaurant was a lovely room with windows all round and about twenty tables of varying sizes, most of them close to the windows. In the middle of the room was a large round table decorated with flowers and wine bottles. The décor was a bit 'odd' with a red patterned carpet that clashed somewhat with the chocolate brown and cream walls, but I was willing to forgive this. Each table had a small vase with one or two perfect gerbera flowers though our vase was notably very battered and damaged. The tables have thick table clothes, the high-backed chairs are comfortably upholstered in cream velour and the table communicated that this was more than a little bit better than pub food.
~Why do people with nothing worth saying always say it so loudly?~
Unfortunately we got put at a table that was far too close to a very loud and (according to my Mum) renowned local nutter. My parents know her from their local gardening club and claim she gets louder every year. To be fair, it wasn't the restaurant's fault and the tables weren't REALLY all that close but this loud woman was considerably more annoying than being placed at a table next to a large family of screaming children. I heard far more of her conversation than I did of anything said by anyone at our table.
The maitre d' was an affable chap in a suit who oozed over to welcome us and offer the menus. He helped my mother put her crutches out of the way and sent a young waiter over with a jug of iced water whilst we made our choices. The Sunday lunch menu offers one-, two- or three-course options for around about the £10.50 mark for one course, £14.30 for two courses and just an extra two pounds to add a third. Each course had four options and between us we did a pretty good job of covering almost all of the possible choices.
Starters included two salads - one with sliced chicken breast which my step-father chose, the other with brie and pine-nuts which my mother chose. My husband and I both opted for the smoked haddock fish cake. The only starter we didn't go for was a tomato soup - life's too short to go for soup! For main courses they have a carvery with self-service vegetables. My husband chose the honey roasted ham, my step-father went for the roast beef, Mum chose grilled cod with prawn sauce and I had mushroom and goat cheese risotto.
With the orders taken the maitre d' asked if we'd like to order drinks or stick to iced water. There was absolutely no pressure to get something from the bar but we ordered a couple of glasses of wine and a bottle of fizzy water. We were given two types of bread to nibble on whilst we waited and both were excellent. One was a crispy ciabatta-textured white bread and the other was a malted brown nut and dried fruit bread.
Starters were brought to the table by two waiters and I was very pleased with my choice. The smoked haddock fishcake had an excellent balance of fish and potato and a small amount of spinach thrown in for good measure. The fish cake was fried to a crisp, golden finish and served on a little bed of baby leaves with a dollop of horseradish cream on the side. Mum's salad was beautifully presented with lots of different textures and colours. The chicken salad looked like a lot of chicken and not much salad but my step-father wasn't about to complain about that.
~Billy No Mates~
For main courses I was left at the table with my dish of risotto whilst the others went off to the carvery. Yes, I felt a bit left out, but realistically I doubt they'd have cooked the roast potatoes or Yorkshire puds in vegetable oil so I probably wouldn't have wanted them. The vegetables didn't seem too exciting either and everyone was a bit baffled by the mashed carrots. My step-father had slices of both the meats whilst my husband stuck to the ham. One of the young waiters took my mother's fish for her and served her all the vegetables because she was walking with her crutches. He took everything very slowly and explained all the choices for her. When she came back to the table and I commented on it, she said the same chap had done the same for her the year before when she'd been there for lunch with a plaster cast on her leg. Admittedly my husband and I were probably 25 years younger than anyone else in the restaurant but it was nice to see that the staff seemed really switched on to serving their older customers.
My risotto would have been all wrong if I'd had any extra vegetables. I suppose if I'd cared I could have asked and I would expect they'd probably have let me have a bowl but the risotto didn't need anything extra and swede, broccoli and squished carrot just wouldn't have been right. I'm pretty good and knocking up a nice mushroom risotto but the White Hart did SO much better than I every could have done. The mushrooms were shiitake and much more flavoursome than standard mushrooms. The goats cheese was melted to creamy but sharp perfection and the whole lot mushed together perfectly. I would never use so much fat in a risotto but I certainly appreciated the extra luxury taste that it gave.
~Not trying hard enough (no Pud)~
I suppose we could have all squeezed in a pudding if we'd tried but I was really full, my husband was trying to be good, and Mum said she was only interested if they had cheesecake, which they didn't. So instead of pudding we opted for coffee and chocs instead and moved through to the hotel lounge. We asked to move the chairs around a bit so Mum could have a high-backed chair that would be easier for her to get in and out of and one of the waitresses dragged the big chair over. One of the waiters brought the coffees with extra chocs because he knew Mum has a sweet tooth and swore that chocolate was really good medicine. We stayed on the sofas for a long time, sipping at the coffee and making sure Mum finished off all the chocs. There was enough coffee for 3 cups each.
I popped off for a visit to the toilets (spotless and very nice smelling) and a little trip down memory lane to check out the bar which looked exactly as I'd remembered it. I could find no sign of the old grand piano and some of the soft furnishings were looking a bit old and worn but there was enough of the old place still in evidence to remind me times gone by. We had a good nose through the Sunday papers, picked up a pass to get out of the car park and then headed home.
My step-father had a voucher for 10% off and this brought our bill down to a shade under £70 for the four of us. He picked up a couple more vouchers so no doubt they'll be back again soon. I can't really work out why it took me so long to eat at the White Hart but I'm sure it won't be long before I go again.