“Curiouser and Curiouser” cried Alice
Historic Cannizaro House, in the midst of bucolic Cannizaro Park, is a former country mansion built in the 18th century at the southern end of Wimbledon Common. During its glamorous history, such luminaries as Kind George lll, the Duke of Wellington, Mrs. Fitzherbert, mistress of George lV, various Italian counts, a gentleman with the peculiar name of Admiral Plunkett-Ernie-Erle-Drax and exiled Emporer Haile Selassie have either made it their residence or were frequent visitors. These days, the beautiful house has become a hotel and popular wedding venue, occupied by, and renamed, rather blandly, Hotel du Vin, and the glorious park, famous for its rhododendrons, roses and sunken garden, still attracts visitors from all over the world. Strolling around it at dusk on a warm summer’s day, it is easy to imagine that you might fall down a rabbit hole and slide into an alternative reality, like Alice in Wonderland, but you have to be careful not to bump your head and bruise your soul in the process, just as she did.
As we enter the house, we are immediately impressed by the elegance of the reception. A sweeping staircase, a grand marble fireplace with an ornate mural above, comfortable leather armchairs and sofas, and parquet flooring are instantly welcoming. But what’s that? Instead of period candelabra casting flickering candlelight over the room, an incongruous array of champagne bottles graces the mantelpiece.
The adjoining Orangerie restaurant, expanding and contracting like Alice in Wonderland, is part of the Bistro du Vin, which is part of the Hotel du Vin, which is inside Cannizaro House, within Cannizaro Park, which is part of Wimbledon Common. We step in and feel a strange transformation of ambience and also of ourselves taking place. I am overcome by the desire to screech “Off with their Heads!” just like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, as I survey the plastic rattan type garden furniture, coupled with brown leatherette sofas and crumpled tartan blankets. Have I landed in the snack area of a garden centre, or in a cricket pavilion? And what are those neon green tennis balls doing, hanging from the ceiling and displayed in brightly lit cabinets, long after the Wimbledon Tennis Championships have been and gone?
The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
We are led to a table with a hole in the middle for a sun umbrella. Why ever would we need it since we are, after all, sitting indoors? On it is a card inviting us to raise a glass to a departed loved one by hiring one of the private rooms for a wake. Clearly, the Hotel du Vin consider this a good way to get our date night off to a swing, although with hindsight, perhaps it is a warning of things to come? I look to the back of the restaurant and am puzzled by heads bobbing up and down and then, most strangely, disappearing altogether, until I realise that there must be a hidden staircase behind the service bar. As we can only see the heads from our table, it looks as though there is a group of unusually short people busying themselves there. Most bizarre. Outside the floor to ceiling windows, which, unfortunately, are candle wax spattered and not entirely clean, are more patio chairs and tables, this time more appropriately sun umbrellaed, but no flowers or anything remotely pretty enhances them. It’s all very coldly utilitarian somehow, loveless and and a bit thoughtless. The eyes longingly stray to the beautiful park which stretches out beyond.
“It was much pleasanter at home” thought poor Alice “ I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole.”
The menu comes and, short as it is, it sounds quite nice. The Lovely Husband and I order a Severn and Wye Smoked Salmon Classic with Soft Boiled Quails Eggs, Shallots, Capers and Cornichons as a shared starter, to be followed by Onglet Steak and Frites for him and Sweetcorn and Courgette Cakes with Steamed Spinach and Salsa Verde plus a portion of Courgettes Frites with an Anchovy and Parsley Dip for me.
The salmon arrives looking intensely orange, far too thickly cut and rather leathery to taste. The little quails’ eggs are very cold and directly out of the fridge, rather than freshly soft boiled as they should be. We have to ask for bread and lemon. The bread is excellent, freshly baked and delicious, but the lemon comes in chunky halves and has to be taken away again to be cut up into more squeezable quarters.
“Keep your temper” said the Caterpillar
The Lovely Husband’s Onglet Steak is perfectly done, pink and tender, and the Béarnaise in its little copper pot is good too, but they are most unappealingly presented alongside a weird, mushy and tasteless squashed cauliflower square. He ignores the latter in favour of the nice thin chips.
My Sweetcorn and Courgette Cakes look very much prettier but alas, they are truly inedible. I’d imagined them to be deep fried and crispy, like good fish cakes, but these are, just like the cauliflower number above, pale and uninteresting, without flavour or texture, just tepid beige soft pap patties. The spinach is so incredibly salty that it makes my palate burn and my hair stand on end. There’s nothing on this plate I can manage to swallow, so I send it back. To her credit, the waitress doesn’t quibble but offers me something else from the menu instead but, by now, my appetite has completely evaporated, so I just munch on the slightly floppy courgette chips, which are by no means amazing but, at least, they give me something to chew on while the Lovely Husband tucks into his Onglet.
“Do let’s pretend I’m a hungry hyena and you’re a bone.”
Out of curiosity, I try the Lovely Husband’s Lemon Meringue Cheesecake with Elderflower Jelly. It is very light, more creamy than cheesy, with three mini meringues, two tiny blobs of Elderflower Jelly and two pansy heads on the side, not fabulous as puddings go, but alright.
The real surprise is the plate of French and British cheese served with biscuits and chutneys. Now this is actually really good. While there is just one chutney or jam, rather than the stated chutneys, and the three apple slices are a rather meagre fruit offering, the cheeses, though a touch dried out at the edges, are well curated in a good mixture of flavours and come in decent portions.
So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice began to think that very few things indeed were really possible.
We finish off with our usual shared cup of Americano and ask for the bill. It totals £78.49 including a bottle of wine, but excluding the unsatisfactory Sweetcorn and Courgette Cakes which have, quite rightly, not been billed. The Lovely Husband’s cheesecake has not been charged for either, which is a generous gesture, although it comes a little late to save our evening. Service overall has been somewhat mediocre.
Alice laughed “There’s no use trying” she said “One can’t believe impossible things.”
It is a crying shame that this stunning venue blessed with an overabundance of beautiful features set against a magnificent backdrop of green and pleasant parkland has not made the most of its potential. How very pretty and inviting it could look, given the right interior design and a little bit of TLC towards its customers. The restaurant could certainly do with rebranding, not to mention the most important aspect of all, more palatable food.
“Delight in dinner at Bistro du Vin Wimbledon, where fine wine and great food are a match made in heaven” says the website.
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice
“You must be” said the Cat “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Quotes in italics are from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
What I wore
Floral Jonathan Saunders T-Shirt Dress, pink Marc Jacobs clutch, fuchsia patent Prada sandals.
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