In at least a few of the myriad books to be written about the 2008 US presidential election, a footnote will be devoted to the subject of today’s review. Even if it wasn’t even the most important electoral influence of its name (that honour going to Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher of Ohio), Plumber Manor still played its unwitting part, because it was to this handsome, 17th-century, rural Dorset house that senior AIG executives repaired in October for a partridge-shooting holiday, just as the Federal Reserve lobbed the insurance giant an additional $37.8bn to bolster the $85bn emergency loan it had made in September.
Try as we might, we Brits never suppress a thrill whenever the Americans so much as notice li’l ol’ us, and for me Plumber Manor’s sudden celebrity across the ocean provided the strongest frisson since my erstwhile Latin student Rachel Weisz was handed an Oscar by that pioneering African-American president Morgan Freeman.
How deep an impact Plumber Manor made on swing voters is debatable, but recalling it fondly, from a visit made a dozen years ago, as a homely charmer laden with dogs and ancestral portraits, it was quite a shock to find it implicitly cited by the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd as a totem of the self-serving greed and profligacy that did so much damage to Republican chances. “We regret that this event was not cancelled,” was AIG’s nicely understated response to this PR triumph, although not half as much, one assumes, as Senator McCain.
Reading reports about the luxuriance of the jolly, as trustingly lifted by news agencies from the News Of The World, I assumed that change (a spa, a helipad and other Eurotrash elegances) must have come to Plumber Manor. But not a bit of it. The labrador puppy we met in 1996 has been exiled due to age-related flatulence, but otherwise it remains the stronghold of pretension-free joviality it was. The same jolly owner patrols the bar, greeting punters as the old friends they (and the AIG lads) evidently are, while his brother in the kitchen cleaves to a formula that eludes so many bucolic hotel restaurants: no fussy amuse-bouches, no dribblings of slime, no irksome poncery whatever. He just takes good local ingredients and cooks them with skill and precision, so that they taste potently of themselves.
With a couple of prissy cavils (the dining room is slightly overlit) we loved everything about our family dinner, from a very young staff’s sweetness with our two-year-old niece, Ellie, to the policy of doubling the wholesale price of wines (we paid £40 for a Batailley that costs £20 at Majestic) rather than the usual quadrupling.
As for the food, in its quiet, artless way this is technically excellent as well as perfect for the setting. My wife thought her ruby red carpaccio of beef (a £3.50 supplement to the dinner menu, which is £26 for two courses and £30 for three) the best rendition of the dish she’s had, and no wonder given the literal texture of butter. A medley of melon, avocado and prawns came with a proper, gutsy sauce Marie Rose, a growing boy of our acquaintance admired the succulence of his smoked duck and chicken breasts, my butternut squash soup was sweet, thick and velvety, and a generous circle of grilled mild goat’s cheese looked wonderful (a bit like tarte tatin) with its top layer of treacly blackcurrant vinaigrette.
Main courses were pretty faultless, too. It wasn’t easy to discern what Ellie made of her sausage and chips, since she by and large contented herself with the ketchup, and my wife thought her sea bass fillet needed pepping up with more of its soy, ginger and spring onion adornment. But breast of partridge (possibly shot by AIG; the menu did not clarify) was as juicily subtle as that bird should be, and cleverly enriched by black pudding-infused bubble and squeak. Five sensationally flavoursome slices of mauvy-red venison (£4.50 supplement) separated two fine sauces, one creamy, the other a sharp cocktail of orange and apple, while the thick oblong of crackling that accompanied loin of pork was unquestionably the finest any of us have encountered. Vegetables were impeccably crunchy.
Puddings from the trolley were all good, especially a lemon meringue roulade, and we left waddling a little, but glowing with pleasure. How Plumber Manor came by its brief global notoriety as an emblem of fin-de-siècle corporate rapacity is one of the minor curios of an election suffused with larger mysteries than that, but you will never find a more honest restaurant, or one more passionately averse to the taking of financial liberties. If only the same could be said for its more infamous regulars.