No room at the Spaniards Inn, so its into the Arms of the Freemasons

I can be at work 10 seconds after I ve left my bed. With no one to judge me, I can work in my pyjamas if I so choose. Deliveries, broken boilers and flooded washing machines can all be incorporated into my working day. I love working from home. It s at t

I can be at work 10 seconds after I've left my bed. With no one to judge me, I can work in my pyjamas if I so choose. Deliveries, broken boilers and flooded washing machines can all be incorporated into my working day. I love working from home.

It's at this time of year though that my shiny smug veneer wears a little thin. Everyone else has their Christmas "dos". High heels and sparkly outfits are being donned and stories of office scandal circulated. Being an office of one, I'm deprived of this seasonal distraction.

Deserving a treat, I decided to hold my own office party. I invited my cousin - also lacking an office party to attend - to join me. I fancied the menu at The Spaniards Inn. The charming Spanish gentleman who answered the phone was genuinely sorry to tell me that they could not accommodate my party. They serve their Christmas menu to tables of a minimum of four. I would have to find more friends.

During December, The Freemasons Arms offers a festive menu alongside their usual fare. They didn't mind that I was challenged on the friend front and took my booking. When I arrived at 1.30pm on a Monday, it was very clear I hadn't needed to reserve a table. With only two other tables filled, I had the run of the place for my raucous celebrations.

On a day (like most this month) when the wind and driving rain made my home office even more attractive, the pub was warm and comforting. A fire blazed in the bar and the lights were at a comforting level. Christmas decorations were low-key - a few pine wreaths and (less tasteful) mini trees covered in fake snow on each table. I chose a table and sank into the squidgy leather cushions on the bench seat. Mellow music added to the calming atmosphere. It was like being enveloped in a huge hug. I was instantly relaxed.

While waiting for my dining companion I had time to check out the room. Still a little early in December for the office lunch season, other diners were spending the grey pound. I found the menu masquerading as a place mat, but had to ask for the Christmas menu that I'd read about on their website. It had a great cover picture. No crackers or party poppers, but at £20 for three courses it looked good value.

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My tardy cousin arrived and agreed with me how chilled the atmosphere was. An extremely friendly and helpful Antipodean waitresses brought sparkling water and two glasses of smooth, fruity, vanilla-scented merlot.

With four choices per course, it didn't take us long to order, and it didn't take long for the kitchen to send out our starters.

The cousin enjoyed her onion tart with cashel blue and rocket but pronounced it average. Caramelised onions were heavy on the sugar and vinegar and the cheese wasn't salty enough to contrast sufficiently. The pastry was more crunchy than crisp.

My terrine was bland and drowned in the roasted apple chutney. The chutney was laden with Christmas spices and provided a pleasant vinegary kick. Four lightly toasted slices of ciabatta were warm, chewy and brushed with olive oil. A pile of naked rocket could have done with some dressing.

We could have done with silly hats and some tasteless cracker jokes to keep us busy while we waited for our main course. Having allowed my fellow reveller to order first, she'd pipped me to the post, ordering the spit chicken, stuffing, chipolatas and cranberry sauce I'd had my eye on. I had to make do with the pumpkin, chestnut mushroom and pecorino risotto.

The chicken plate was endless brown. The chef - perhaps practising for a Christmas Jenga tournament - had balanced the (tasty) sausage stuffing on top of a tower of dry chicken joints with St Tropez tans. Next to them sat two skinny, brunette chipolatas. The whole construction sat in a shiny pool of russet gravy. Nothing to break up the earth-coloured composition and no sign of the promised cranberry sauce, which might have served to rehydrate the chicken.

My risotto was disappointing - having sat too long - leaving it heavy, dry and sticky. The roughly chopped curly parsley garnish wasn't helpful. Pumpkin was tender but bland. The promised chestnut mushrooms were in fact chestnuts AND mushrooms - which was a nice surprise, as I love chestnuts, especially at this time of year. I managed about half of the very generous portion.

Nat King Cole's Christmas Song helped our festive feeling as we considered how to end our bash. My individual Christmas pudding was warm and tasty, and a little chewy but none the worse for that. The brandy anglaise (unnecessary posh name for custard) was unpleasant. Cold, gluey and clumsily flavoured with too much brandy and sugar. The treacle tart my cousin chose was beautifully presented - a large wedge with a small pot of vanilla ice cream topped with half a strawberry. However, it seemed massively undercooked. She enjoyed it but likened it to eating ginger flavoured cookie dough.

At this point we drew our Christmas 2006 festivities to a close. The service had been top class - attentive, friendly and helpful and the atmosphere was relaxed. But we'd had the real Christmas party deal in so far as it was a substandard set menu. You'd normally fail to notice (or perhaps more easily forgive) the low quality of the food due to heavy consumption of festive cheer but this shouldn't be the case. The Freemason's is capable of so much better than this. Perhaps it was a blip, but if not they need to pull their Christmas stockings up if Santa's going to find them this year.

Wherever you choose to eat yours, I hope all of you enjoy a great Christmas meal.

The Freemasons Arms, 32 Downshire Hill, Hampstead Heath, NW3.

Telephone 020-7433 6811


Service HHHHH

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday: noon-2.30pm and 7-10pm.

A three-course lunch costs £20 plus drinks