[Disclosure: We paid in full at Limehouse. They didn’t know I was a blogger]
Lulworth Cove is a rather lovely little place. Just round the corner from famous Durdle Door, it’s one of those tourist havens that’s somehow developed around a single street down to the cove, lined by chocolate box houses that are as aggressive as they are beautiful, thanks to the shouty ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ and ‘NO PARKING’ signs that remind us visitors that we’re welcome to come and spend our money but please can we bugger off as quickly as possible and try not to get in the way.
Along with those there are a couple of cafes, a visitor centre and some hotels. Casual affairs, designed to accommodate those looking for a peaceful few days by the sea. Menus have the classics like fish and chips, steak, moules marinieres, served in relaxed restaurants where the conversation is dominated by which famous sights people have taken in that day and what they’re doing tomorrow.
We stayed in one of these, Lulworth Lodge, where we quickly felt at home amid the nautical decor, welcomed brilliantly by super-friendly staff whose faultless service, no matter whether it’s breakfast, dinner or fixing a wonky bath panel, is nearly as impressive as the views just 30 seconds walk from the front door.
On our first night we dined on fish and chips and chocolate brownie with a reasonably priced bottle of wine. Not a meal to write home about in particular, but exactly what we came for, and decent value for money. No complaints here.
On night two, after a day exploring the area, we decided on a change of scene and headed up the hill to Lulworth Lodge’s sister hotel, Limehouse. It’s the ‘posher’ sibling of the two, with its imposing position appearing to physically demonstrate the fact it’s perhaps aimed at a higher standard of visitor. That’s also reflected in the prices, with main courses a couple of quid more than its more casual relative down the hill. Nothing to worry too much about, providing those higher prices are directly reflected in superior quality of food.
Despite the more formal feeling to the whole establishment, the welcome at Limestone is just as warm as at Lulworth Lodge. The dining room has a more refined feel, again reflected in the menu, and we can’t help but feel we’re in for a treat.
Manchego croquettes are a promising start, light and tasty, with a golden brown crumb, and paired with fresh figs and a sweet, slightly spicy chutney. They could maybe handle more seasoning, but it’s not a deal breaker.
But it’s my query about my duck main course that marks the moment things start to unravel. I enquire whether it’s served pink and I’m reliably told that of course it is, because that’s the best way.
I guess you could argue that it was a bit pink. Not pink enough, in my humble opinion. They could perhaps have got away with it, if it wasn’t for the wet, flaccid potato rosti and the school dinner-style puddle of sauce that was lacking in depth and rather than transporting me to some happy place of foodie heaven, took me right back to my teens and a boarding school canteen. Carrots were good, I’ll give them that, but the promised pak choi was unidentifiable and lacked the crunchy freshness that I was looking forward to.
Mum’s main was better than mine, but still not perfect. There was a lack of crispiness to the skin on her fish but she admitted that the sauce was tasty, though again perhaps lacking in seasoning. In fact, it was her eagle eye that spotted several people around the dining room adding extra salt and pepper to their meals, so perhaps we weren’t the only ones who would have liked a bit more oomph when it came to flavour.
I’ve never been good at complaining – it doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t like to offend, and I’m acutely aware that not only is it difficult in hospitality to get every single element right every single time, but it’s more difficult than ever thanks to the pressures of rising costs, staff shortages and every other one of the million challenges facing the industry at the moment.
I’m also of the view that this stuff often comes down to context – are you somewhere that reckons it’s the best in the business, and charges accordingly? Or are you in a small place that’s giving things a go and charging a snip for good food, albeit slightly imperfectly? Because while you should never really walk away from a meal you’ve paid for feeling disappointed, that level of disappointment is often proportionate to how much you’ve paid and what your expectations were.
All this is why when I was asked if everything was okay with my uneaten plate, I told the truth. Props to the Limehouse staff for trying to deal with things at this stage. Did I want a new meal? Did I want something else? All the responses you’d expect from a decent place, and I’ll own the fact that I politely declined, choosing to wait for the next course rather than make mum, who had nearly finished, wait while I had a whole new meal cooked.
Dessert went someway to redemption. A warm Dorset apple cake that was delicately spiced, soft and moist, and the right level of sweetness, muted by the clotted cream it came with. It’s unfortunate for them that serving it on a hot plate prompting the cream to melt into a puddle might lead some to assume that a microwave had been involved. I’m not saying it was – perhaps the crockery had just come out of the dishwasher – but either way the cream and presentation suffered as a consequence.
My cheeseboard was a delight – aren’t they always? And while Limehouse can’t take the credit for the local cheeses they selected, apparently they make the spiced chutney they serve them with in-house, which is a nice touch.
Another nice touch was the waitress’s decision to double-up my dessert wine as a sorry for the under-par main course. A small gesture but one that did brighten my mood after a meal that failed to hit the spot in more than one way.
Had it been me, I would perhaps have removed that disastrous duck from the bill, but we’re not all me and perhaps that kind of attitude is why I am not a millionaire and don’t have any kind of business empire.
Either way, Limehouse was an exercise in why expectation and value will forever be important when it comes to how we feel about meals we eat, both good and bad. If my starter was under-seasoned and my main over-cooked down the road at Lulworth Lodge, would I have been as narked? Perhaps not. But the big hotel on the hill sells itself as the superior sibling, which means you can’t help but expect superior food and service. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t deliver. Take my advice, and head down the road instead.