THE problem with going out to dinner with a friend who is an agricultural economist is there is bound to be a certain amount of guilt attached. It's just as difficult to swallow the information that the average income in Malawi is a mere $40 per annum as it is to swallow a mouthful of fillet steak at £24.
But then Paul's wife, Eileen, wouldn't have dreamt of ordering such an expensive main course if she'd known how much it was. Our suave waiter recommended this 'special' - along with the sea bass, the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and 'the wonderful, wonderful veal steaks' without mentioning the cost.
Newly revamped, Cabbage Hall, near Tarporley, is full of such confidence; from the boudoir-like velvet banquets to the highly polished wood block floor; from the silver and black dining chairs to the up-to-the-minute wallpapered walls. This place really does have the 'wow' factor with the ultimate in one-upmanship - a helipad - planned for the near future.
However, since it describes itself as a gastro-pub, the food should be doing just as much talking as the decor.
But as Eileen and I sat together on the stylish linen-covered settee, opposite our husbands, we were the ones doing the talking and we couldn't concentrate long enough to make our choices.
The waiters and waitresses were friendly and solicitous. They probably knew what we knew: as it was a very busy Saturday night, we only had the table for a couple of hours. There was no time for this bunch of 40-somethings to be discussing African economies or how to charm the Bill Gates Foundation out of $80m. There were decisions to be made - and fast.
So I made a snap one of my own. Just as Eileen's husband, Paul, was detailing his $10 per person poverty-busting pilot study in Malawi, I ordered two of the £1.50 portions of breadsticks - some plain, some with olives, safe in the knowledge that that would give us a bit more time. Phew.
Paul and husband, P, ordered a pint of Guinness and a pint of Tetley, both disappointed that there were no real ales on offer.
'It's not a gastro-pub if it doesn't have real ale,' said P, sulkily. Eileen and I sipped on the recommended Sauvignon Blanc (£13.50) and agreed, Cabbage Hall was better described as a restaurant.
The breadsticks were great; fresh, home-made and warm from the oven. With a nibble and a sip we left the worries of Africa behind for a moment and felt charmed by this newest 'place-to-be-seen in Cheshire'.
It wasn't easy, but our choice of starters was as follows: Eileen and I were going to share a wild mushroom risotto with fava beans and Parmesan (£6), Paul chose a risotto of crab with prawn (£7) and P, the French onion soup (£4).
Well, there wasn't a disappointed taste-bud among the risotto eaters. 'Delicious, great mushrooms, fabulous crab' - although I'm still in the dark as to what a f-f-fava bean is. (I seem to remember they were a favourite of Hannibal Lecter's.)
And then Paul and Eileen got into a husband and wife 'discussion' about the texture of the rice in the risotto. It was just one of those throw-away comments, along the lines of: 'I think the rice may be overcooked', that started it.
'But risotto rice is supposed to be that soft,' said Eileen.
My money was on Paul being correct - ie the rice was overcooked - since he'd just come back from another 'economic advising' trip to Albania, where they eat an awful lot of Italian food.
But I checked it later and it would appear they were both right. If you like your risotto soft, Arborio rice is the one to use, but apparently this is not the purists' favourite. Carnaroli rice is the most popular among Italian cooks (possibly Albanian ones too?) and gives the risotto a firm, distinctive crunch in the centre.
Meanwhile P was being extremely well behaved, cracking on with his French onion soup. He thought the onions should have been more caramelised and as he makes a pretty good version of it himself, he was probably right.
By now we were all convinced that, of course, Bill Gates would give Paul the requisite funds for the residents of Malawi. 'What did those in the pilot study spend their $10 on?' I asked.
'Soap, sugar and salt,' said Paul, making me pause mid-mouthful.
Fortunately, I managed to put my humbled feelings to one side once the main courses arrived.
Paul's smoked haddock with spinach and a soft boiled egg and my half a lobster Thermidor (again with spinach arranged artfully in the shell) were £14 apiece. There were no other vegetables apart from my chips and Eileen's huge portion of mashed potato. We missed the fact that all healthy veg were £2.50 extra, listed at the bottom of the menu.
Both P's sea bass (£19) and Paul's haddock were perfectly cooked, lovely fresh pieces of fish.
The fillet steak was a good 2cms thick, had a lovely flavour and came with a red wine sauce but it was too pink in the centre for Eileen's taste (she had ordered it cooked medium) and my half a lobster was literally gone in two to three mouthfuls. But putting our spoilt western palates to one side for a moment, Cabbage Hall was beginning to seduce me with its style.
The staff - all dressed in black - were well trained and polite; the decor was so up-to-the-minute I felt I was in the pages of a Homes and Gardens magazine: I wanted that painting, I loved the wallpaper and most notable of all was the lighting, which made the whole place look and feel like a trendy city centre restaurant rather than a humble pub on the A49.
But then we felt the breeze from the garden and decided we could forgo the style in exchange for a little fresh air.
Outside, Eileen and I shared a poire Belle Hélène (£5); poached pear, fresh berries and almond-dusted ice-cream. The boys chose the slightly more macho cheese board.
I was disappointed that we were sitting on the type of picnic bench you'd find in Delamere Forest, whereas a touch of teak, or some artful wrought iron would have been more fitting. The fresh napkins brought outside by one of the young waiters was a nice touch but what a pity he was so unsure about the cheeses. He said he'd check what they were.
On his return he announced: 'Mollington, a goat's cheese and er...I'm not sure.'
I don't mean to be a cheap skate - but three tiny slivers of cheese for £7.50? Even if the crackers were Duchy Originals, there's no excuse for that level of mark-up.
'That's pretty poor,' said Paul looking at the plate.
But not nearly as poor as Malawi. Just imagine what they'll be eating if they get their $10 apiece from Bill Gates. I'm just guessing, but I reckon they'll do much better than a few pieces of cheese.
* Cabbage Hall, Forest Road, Little Budworth, Tarporley. Tel: 01829 760292.
* Special offer menu: £10 for two courses between 6-7pm
* Price: We paid £85 for two people including a bottle of wine, two pints of beer, three courses each and coffees.
* Best thing: stylish surroundings and well trained staff.
* Worst thing: Some dishes were pricey, limited range of beer.
* Would suit: lovers of intimate dining.