Worcestershire

The Crown Inn, Hallow

It’s freezing on the late morning we set off for Hallow. Like teeth chattering cold, the kind of November day that sticks icicles on your testicles. Winter is here in full brutishness, taking away our drive and robbing us of sunlight. Not even the inside of the car can save us, my water starting to transition towards a more solid matter and my girlfriend’s hands too cold to handle my gearstick, or the one on the car. We need the comfort of comfort food. Of slow cooked meats and carbohydrates. I happen to know just the place.

I never saw The Crown Inn prior to the refurb, though I like what I see now. It has a mazy quality that reminds me of the adjoining rooms at The Hand and Flowers, with low wooden beams and walls with the girth of a building built to last. The pub has two wood burning stoves that sit both ends of the room like goals and we are positioned in front of one basking in its heat. I like it here. I also like the menu that speaks in a language I understand. It has a familiarity to it but also the ambition of a head chef that has come from the two star Le Champignon Sauvage. Amongst the pub food is game and souffles. We would order both.

Starters first. A croquette of breaded lamb shoulder is a dense bit of sheep made sprightly by a helping of vibrant salsa verde and a sharp redcurrant dressing. Little cubes of charred feta punch with saltiness, whilst the semi-dried tomato feels superfluous. It is a dish that works for its braveness, a potentially tightrope of various acidity and bold seasoning. It pays off. We mostly like a mammoth scotch egg, yolk just runny, breadcrumb coating crisp and golden. The ham hock filling is nice and piggy, though a little under seasoned and containing a few bits that should never have passed the picking process. Furthermore its too big. Generous to the point that this could easily feed one on its own.

It’s a this point that the cottage pie happens. Another gigantic portion, with braised and shredded beef shin at the core and crowned with potatoes that have had the right amount of fat introduced to them. And when I say the right amount I mean lots. There is a jug of thick gravy that delivers on its promise from the very moment it coats my finger. Carrots cooked in beef fat are the only accompaniment it needs and they too are wondrous things. It is a brilliant rethinking of a classic, pimped up and sent out looking as dandy as it tastes.

Our other main is pheasant. It’s a rustic plate of the good stuff, with roasted breasts just blushing pink positioned on on creamed cabbage, a buttery wedge of potato and onion labelled as a hash brown, and the filthiest of black pudding purèe’s. The dish is completed by black berries and a well sauce that has the back note of acidity needed to counteract the richness. It’s a lot of food for £17 and we tell them so. Apparently, there have been gripes that the portions here are small. I despair at those who clearly don’t know a good thing when it’s hit them in the face. And this pheasant is a very good thing indeed. Of the sides we try, roasted carrots and parsnips are glazed in maple, and potato gratin in gloriously cheesy with a back note of nutmeg. Only the chips could have done with a fraction longer in the fryer.

After a pre-dessert of lemon and mango which has perfectly judged levels of sweetness and acidity, before we share an apple soufflé to finish. The soufflé is textbook, proud in height with good apple flavour. The ice cream may be a little too subtle in salted caramel, but works well when we prise open the top of the soufflé and slide the ice cream in. I can only applaud any pub that not only shows the ambition to put this on the menu, but to also deliver it with aplomb.

There are petit fours but by now we’re both full to the point of bursting – I defy anyone to come here and eat three courses and not feel the same. The team here might be relatively new (the head chef, Chris Monk, has been in place for three months), but they are already showing considerable skill. It’s not perfect yet, though it is somewhere that I’ll be monitoring closely over the next year. It’s my style of food; clean and bold and still familiar. There is a clear market for taking traditional pub food and elevating it above the norm, and The Crown Inn are doing a great job at cracking it.

7/10

I was invited to dine at The Crown Inn

Chateau Impney, Droitwich Spa

Whether it be ringing a door bell, looking through a menu on-line the day before, or booking three months prior, a meal starts way before the first plate is delivered. At Chateau Impney it begins when you first see the Louis XIII style chateau from the A38. The long drive leads up through the extensive grounds where the imposing red-brick building remains beautiful, albeit now with a less than beautiful rear extension.

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The chateau was a labour of love, built almost 150 years ago by a salt magnet to satisfy his Parisian raised wife, who sadly did a runner before the building was finished. I wish that we had been able to make a similar dart for it when the food started to appear. The first issue is the location of the dining room, deep in the lower loins of the building. Whilst upstairs is a majestic ode to The Renaissance, the dining room in the basement is a faux art deco mass of monochrome. Sadly, its less Louis XIII chateau and more Fritzel’s Palace. The menu is an unapologetic collection of 70’s dinner party classics, which is fine, just as long they are done well.  A goats cheese soufflé looked fine enough, but had the texture of a tennis ball and no flavour whatsoever.  Around it was a mango and chilli salsa which lacked any heat. If ever a recipe needed re-approaching, this was it. On the flip of this was a ramekin filled with chopped bacon and button mushrooms, topped with smoked cheddar.  Estate agents would describe it as “rustic” looking, though I will leave you to draw your own conclusions on its appearance.  It tasted acceptable in the way that bacon, mushrooms, and melted cheese do, but a starter in a restaurant? Really?  Not good enough.

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Chicken with tarragon sauce had reasonably well cooked poultry in a cream sauce with no aniseed flavour present.  We were the last sitting, so maybe they run out of tarragon, who knows.  The potato fondant was very good, properly buttery and cooked through.  A turkey roast faired slightly better with good roast spuds, fluffy Yorkshire pudding, and a proper gravy.  Vegetables came served separately and varied from well cooked carrots to raw broccoli. 096

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Desserts were a continuation of the frustrating previous courses.  Apple and toffee pie was actually a decent apple pie, topped with a toffee sauce and a bowlful of a custard which I can pretty much guarantee was the powdered variety.  Again, it was rustic looking, but I don’t mind that with dessert.  A chocolate and caramel tart looked a lot better, even if there was little, if any, of the caramel flavour.

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The service was led by a very polite restaurant manager and I felt sorry for her.  She can only deal with what is placed in her hands – it is the kitchens job to ensure it is good enough to go out.  All of this was charged at the very modest twenty-two pounds for three courses, which for some I imagine accounts for good value.  Not I.  A tenner a head extra could have got me a very good lunch elsewhere.  Chateau Impney is a beautiful place, but it is best viewed from the road en route to somewhere else to eat.

5/10

Talbot Inn, Newnham Bridge

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It seems obvious, yet so few abide by a simple rule of cooking; start with great ingredients and you will end up with a great dish. I am living proof that with a good butcher (Roger Browns of Harborne, if you’re interested) and a trusty place to get veg, even the most inept of cooks can rustle up something edible. Transfer the produce to someone much more capable and what you have is culinary fireworks. The Talbot Inn, a sleepy pub in Newnham Bridge, doesn’t have far to look for its raw material. Nestled in amongst the borders of Worcestershire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire, it has some of England’s finest bounty on it’s doorstep. From the windows of the former coaching inn it is possible to see tomorrows dinner grazing up on the hills.

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It is pleasing to know that the Talbot is making the most of its location by sourcing as much as possible from its doorstep, and its at these moments that the menu really sings. Bubble and Squeak, a leftover dish often relegated to breakfast in our household, came with a poached egg and a sharp hollandaise that made for a gutsy starter. In between the mound of veg and egg sat a piece of back bacon from a pig that had led a happy life; the porcine flavour present with a layer of unctuous fat to coat the mouth.

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A hefty portion of goats cheese was warmed through came with some lightly pickled pear that provided contrast and acidity.  A fig and balsamic dressing balanced the whole dish out by further interplaying the sweet and the sour.  A fish cake of salmon and crayfish that  benefited from not being overloaded with mash potato nodded politely at the far east with a salad of spring onions and sweet chilli sauce.

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A carefully roasted beef dinner and another of pork both had some good roasties, creamed cabbage, and heritage carrots that were seemingly plucked out of the ground just hours before.  We sat around the table discussing how the meat was of obvious quality whilst agreeing that the carrots were the best things on the plate.  Another plate had more of the superb carrots with a compression of sweet potato and parsnip as the centrepiece.  A tomato and herb sauce added vibrancy to the earthiness of the root veg, all of which were impeccably fresh.

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After all this, desserts failed to reach the expectations set from earlier on.  Not because they were bad in any way, but because they followed the same rustic lines as the savoury courses and lacked the refinement required to make it stand out.  A fruit crumble was well made, though a lemon and lime posset was the pick of the bunch; the marginally over-set cream was sharp with citrus and worked well with both the sweet mango salsa and coconut shortbreads.

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Speaking to our waitress after the meal I got a sense of the ambitions here. The Talbot’s website may play down the cooking here as “relaxed rustic food”, but it’s obvious they are aiming much higher than that.  It’s a well thought out operation with real care made to the sourcing and cooking of its food.  For a business that has only been operating for two years it has found its feet remarkably fast;  it can only be a matter of time before the accolades and crowds come trotting along just as quickly.

8/10

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