Kempton's Panoramic loses sight of the essentials once past the prawn cocktail.
Since last year, catering duties have fallen to the Compass Group, which cooks the tucker for everything from school dinners to army rations. Venues like The Panoramic have a hard balancing act: no-one wants food that's so fancy it will distract them from what they've come to watch; on the other hand, if punters wanted something as basic as a sarnie, they'd have filled up at one of the stands outside.
You could say the menu is the food equivalent of a smart-casual, dressdown Friday: prawn cocktail with dill and Marie Rose sauce or ham hock terrine with a pea and mint puree to start; then salmon fishcakes with a fennel and green bean salad and chunky chips, or for the veggies, goats' cheese and spinach panier with new potatoes and baby leaf salad.
Things started well. The prawn cocktail was served without any retro irony or cheffy twists - just a glass of fresh, summery salad, the prawns juicy, the lettuce crisp and the Marie Rose sauce sweet and sharp. All you could want, in other words, and top marks too for not serving it fridge cold. The terrine was also spot-on, a chunky collage of good-quality ham laced with parsley, the pea and mint puree a punchy contrast.
To follow, the menu promised salmon fishcakes; but what arrived on the plate was a fishcake, singular. And a pretty decent one at that, with the salmon-to-mash ratio firmly in the fish's favour and the chunky chips on the side stacked like Jenga pieces - a nice presentation touch. But it was a shame that the sauce was not the classic match of hollandaise but the same gloopy bearnaise served with the steak, and that the lacklustre fennel and green bean salad came without dressing - neither a very thoughtful touch.
But things really went awry with the goats' cheese and spinach panier, its damp pastry filled with dry strands of spinach and a square of cheese not much bigger than the cubes of feta you get in a Greek salad. Unbuttered new potatoes and another undressed salad made us suspect this is not a kitchen that likes vegetables (or vegetarians), even though a herb garden has been planted between the all-weather and jump tracks, something the menu does not mention: a missed-trick, given the trend for all things seasonal and local.
Puddings were no better. Apple crumble had chunks of tart fruit topped with a dusty crumble assertively flavoured with cinnamon, and the treacle tart was too sweet and synthetic tasting.
It is, at least, all reasonably priced - two/three courses from the 'bistro' menu cost pounds 37/pounds 42, which includes the entrance fee of about pounds 15 (although more formal menus are offered on major racedays for upwards of pounds 50). And the wine list is great value: house champagne De Nauroy Brut NV is pounds 35 and there are 14 mainly new-world wines - seven white and red apiece, plus a rose - all priced at under pounds 40, and about half under pounds 20.
But even at these prices, the quality of cooking just does not cut the mustard. This kind of simple stuff should be comforting enough to offer consolation for losing and be memorable enough to be a treat when you win - it fails on both fronts.
It did not help that service left much to be desired. We had to ask twice for a glass of tap water; my friend's wine glass was noticeably smaller than mine (presumably an oversight rather than a policy to serve women smaller measures); menus were not brought until requested and it took an age for our order to be taken and for plates to be cleared away. Our waitress seemed very inexperienced. Engaging staff with more professionalism and charm would create a greater sense of being a valued customer.
Food and service - eating well, and feeling taken care of - are the two main reasons that people dine out.
Of course, The Panoramic's punters have come primarily to watch the racing, but there is no way that a restaurant like this would survive if it did not have entertainment thrown in. It doesn't so much say destination dining as shout captive audience.
The Panoramic Bar & Restaurant, Kempton Park Racecourse, Staines Road East, Sunbury on Thames, Middlesex, TW16 5AQ; 01932 753518; kempton.co.uk