The Oak Room at Pendley Manor: Please don’t go (September 2015)

It is hard to put it more bluntly than the title of this review. However, a recent weekend stay at Pendley Manor, a mid-sized hotel in rural Hertfordshire, had to rank as the most disappointing culinary experience of the past year. By a large margin too. I have certainly eaten worse food and received worse service (only just in the latter respect), but relative to expectations, Pendley Manor was one massive let-down, from beginning to end. If the hotel’s website is to be believed, its restaurant ranks as “one of the finest” in the county, producing “highly imaginative dishes” with a “contemporary approach.” Furthermore, the restaurant is in possession of not one, but two AA rosettes. A brief look at the AA’s website says that such establishments are considered “excellent” with “great precision” evident in the cooking. After our visit, all I can say is that I would hate to see less fine restaurants in Hertfordshire and would certainly suggest that the AA pay Pendley Manor a return visit. The precision evident on our stay was most akin to that of a very blunt knife. Indeed, the topic of cutlery seems an appropriate place with which to begin, since if there were one moment that summed up just how appalling the service was, then it would be the moment when one of our group of six requested a spoon for their pasta dish. This is hardly what could be considered a strange or controversial request. Our server nodded politely; minutes later the most senior member of the serving staff approached our table and asked whether there was something with which we he could help, since there seemed to be some sort of problem. The only problem was that the vast majority of the servers we encountered across two dinners and two breakfasts neither spoke English fluently nor had seemingly received even the most rudimentary of training (cutlery recognition skills, anyone?). This was just one example from a catalogue of disasters. Just to highlight a few others: having to wait ten minutes just for a jug of tap water to be delivered to the table, an incorrect number of wine glasses relative to the number of guests (along with a similarly long wait for the wine itself), the inability to open a screw-cap (not cork) bottle of wine, the whisking away of dishes before some of our group had finished... I could go on, but in the interests of time, it is probably best to move onto the food. ‘Imaginative’ and ‘contemporary’ are certainly not the words I would use to describe, say, a prosciutto, melon and pecorino starter – more a classic from the 1970s, badly reprised here – or a rib eye steak, the most expensively priced item on the menu (coming in at £22.50). Overall, the food would be better characterised as moderately pedestrian. My sea bream fillet with wild mushrooms, new potatoes, spinach and sun-blush tomatoes (the main on night one) was decidedly average, with a total absence of any flavour and a notably stingy quantity of the promised vegetables. Day two offered little redemption. It was depressing enough to have to choose from an identical menu for a second consecutive occasion and it surely might not have been too much to ask for a half-decent place perhaps to offer at least one special a day. My prawn, chilli and coriander linguini was acceptable, but more the sort of dish I might prepare at home mid-week rather than pay £16.50 for in a notionally high quality establishment. A final word on the puddings: one of our party’s choice of chocolate brownie was described as – and indeed looked to be – ‘rubbery,’ while another in our group noted that her blackcurrant sorbet had the smell and taste of ‘cheap shampoo.’ By now, you get the picture. Ultimately, the setting for the venue – a Victorian building located in 30-odd acres of parkland – may be attractive, but good views can’t compensate in any sense for what might be considered close to a mostly dreadful experience. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.