Wholemeal pastry – now there’s a thing I haven’t had in a while. Thirty years ago, when vegetarian cuisine was in its penitentially-worthy, all-or-nothing phase, wholemeal pastry, wholemeal pasta, brown rice and unpeeled veg were strictly enforced non-negotiables and anyone who served their refined white brethren at communal mealtimes was instantly suspect.
Nowadays, interest in flavour and texture has supplanted slavish orthodoxy for its own sake. Brown varieties maintain a place in the pantheon, but it’s expected that any decision to deploy their heavy, often chewy properties and stronger taste is a conscious one, taken as a way of balancing other elements of the dish. Which is why I had hope that Worcester Whitehouse Hotel’s choice of wholemeal pastry for its ‘Leek Fondant Tart’ was not simply a case of (cue eye roll) ‘that’s what they like, them vegetarians’.
On closer inspection though, I think it might have been. Supporting evidence: first, the roasted vegetable and lentil soup I was served as a starter. Its earthy taste was pleasant – if unsophisticated – but taken together with its unappealing sludgy colour and austere presentation – devoid of any swirl of cream, bob of croûtons or posy of watercress – it spoke of food not as multi-faceted sensory pleasure, but as exercise in po-faced self-denial.
Second: the ‘fondant tart’ itself. This was a thing apart. On arrival, it seemed not unpromising; considering that working with wholemeal pastry is akin to upholstering an armchair with wet sand, the exterior was well-made. Tall sides hinted at a (hopefully) luxurious wallow of filling within. But all that awaited was another helping of grim austerity.
The tart was topped by a matrix of welded materials, mostly unidentified, but grated cheese may have may have contributed a girder or two. It was very, very hard; indeed I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to crack it with the back of a spoon – but no, that would have been unforgivably frivolous for a vegetarian dining here.
From between this topping and the inevitably (because it was wholemeal) thick-ish pastry base, I eventually coaxed a reluctant dribble of ‘fondant’ – a weird substance that pulled off the difficult trick of being both gloopy and watery at the same time. I suspect the thickening agent was not cooked out. My tongue conveyed tactile evidence that leek was present, but failed to detect any taste. The delicate flavour was completely overwhelmed by a far too-generous slug of thyme.
To be honest, I don’t know why they didn’t just go for a simple quiche and have done with it. Or maybe I do. The tart was the only vegetarian option on the severely-restricted Sunday lunchtime menu. As accompaniment, those of non-meat-eating persuasions had to share the same boiled vegetables and roast potatoes served to everybody else. I suspect chef may have judged that combining these with quiche would have resulted in a dish that was too dry. And as hoary-handed vegetarians apparently blanch in horror at the mere mention of an item as dilettante as sauce, the solution was to make the tart self-saucing. AKA ‘fondant’.
My sourness was intensified by the surroundings, which left little to contemplate but the disappointing food. Worcester is a fine city and it was a lovely day – not warm enough for al fresco dining, but it would have been nice to enjoy it through a window. Except there weren’t any. Beneath the migrainous electric bulbs that supplied the only light, the single reminder of the world outside was a short and slightly sinister-looking length of artificial hedge. A stainless steel servery, not in use, took up most of one wall and dumbly re-enforced the air of abandonment, of real life moving off elsewhere.
Service was friendly and flawlessly efficient, but couldn’t make up for other problems. Not least of which was that for the second time in a week I was made to feel not just a stereotype, but a tired and outdated stereotype at that.
Worcester Whitehouse Hotel, Foregate Street, Worcester WR1 1EA. Sunday lunch, two courses £11.95.