Lunch@The Pot Kiln, Frilsham

At first glance The Pot Kiln may appear to be a traditional English pub in the West Berkshire countryside but it’s approach to food is quite different to most other pubs. Named as one of the Top 100 restaurants in the UK 2017 by The Sunday Times, the menu has a strong focus on game including venison from locally culled wild deer.

The Pot Kiln was also the original home of the West Berkshire Brewery but no single brewery has a monopoly on the beer on sale today as now it is a free house. This means there should be some great ales for me to try and I start with the Brick Kiln Bitter – created specially for this place by the West Berkshire brewers. It is a dark amber, earthy bitter – perfectly fine but not my favourite from this brewery.

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Rock chooses to kick off with the beetroot cured gravadlax with beetroot in counter and dice shapes, horseradish cream and pickled cucumber. The quality of the dish is outstanding and she is very happy with her choice. I go for the wood pigeon salad served with bacon, black pudding, mushrooms and darts of balsamic glaze. The wood pigeon is quite rare but it is also tender and works fantastically with the black pudding. So far, so very good.

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Beetroot cured gravadlax, beetroot, horseradish cream & pickled cucumber
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Wood pigeon salad, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms & balsamic glaze

I need a second beer and I want to try another West Berkshire ale that I’ve not had before. Mister Swift’s is a light, fruity pale ale, I really like it and it gets a high mark on my personal beer scorecard.

We both feel that the best next move is to choose venison for our main course. I have the grilled pavé of fallow served with pomme purée, cavolo nero, game stuffing and a pool of red wine gravy. The pomme purée could have been creamier but, I’m really nitpicking, overall the dish is fabulous. Rock has the venison burger served with incredible crispy potato wedges stacked like dominoes (I sneak some of them onto my plate), a rich home-made tomato sauce and their own coleslaw. Wow, that’s a real winner!

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Grilled pavé of fallow served with pomme purée, cavolo nero, game stuffing & red wine gravy
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Venison burger, crispy potato wedges, home-made tomato sauce & coleslaw

We have really enjoyed decent beer, fantastic food and fabulous service from Claudia. If you are looking to find a great place to eat game – don’t take up some sort of trivial pursuit – the Pot Kiln is the only game in town!

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Lunch@The Fox & Hounds, Wroughton

Today I’m meeting Cali, Xena & Antonio for lunch at the Fox & Hounds in Wroughton. This is an old haunt for all of us but there have been some changes here – the place was completely refurbished in 2015 and the menu has been refurbished too!

Antonio and I are first to arrive and we both have a pint of Wiltshire Gold. Xena soon joins us and, as we all anticipated, Cali arrives in her own time. At this point we are sitting in the garden and we can watch Cali – hoping that she does not re-enact the infamous car parking incident which is part of our collective history.

Xena enjoys the fresh smoked chicken Caesar salad which is full of quite strong flavours. Antonio has the interesting variation on paella made with chicken and Chorizo. I’ve been drawn to the marinated pork chop with garlic, fried noodles, pak choi and a soya dipping sauce. It is enjoyable though possibly a touch too sweet for me. Cali has the leek and feta cheese tart served with a tomato and bean salad. She likes the fact that the tarts have been freshly cooked but finds the leeks a little strange.

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Chicken & Chorizo paella
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Marinated pork chop with fried noodles & pak choi
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Leek & feta cheese tarts

Conversation flows about the past, the present and the future and we are all really enjoying ourselves. From my perspective, this is a small but perfectly formed group of former workmates…and we really need to meet up more often. The refurbished Fox & Hounds is much improved and the food is better too!

Lunch@The Bell, West Overton (2)

We first visited The Bell in West Overton in 2016. We really enjoyed the food and so we are going back for a second time to meet Jem & Sassy for lunch. The Bell is run by Hannah & Andrew McNaughton. Hannah leads the front of house team while Andrew, who has cooked at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor and at the Oxo Tower, leads the kitchen team.

I begin by revisiting the beer I had last time – Moles Best from the Moles Brewery in Melksham. It is a malty copper coloured bitter with a hint of floral hops. No one else at our table is drinking alcohol but, without the need for liquor, they are still all in good spirits.

Curried smoked haddock & prawn fishcakes served with lime pickle and coriander are brought to the table for Jem & Sassy. They have a crisp coating, are generously filled and taste fantastic. I have the duck liver parfait with onion confit and toast. Smooth, highly flavoured parfait. Rock has the warm potato pancake with hot smoked salmon, watercress and crème fraiche.  Well balanced and delicious. All good choices – what a great start!

Another beer but this time I’m going to try something new. Birdman is from the Flying Monk Brewery in Malmesbury. It is a refreshing full-bodied pale golden bitter – a nice contrast to the Moles Best. Jem & Sassy not only have the same starter but the same main course. It is some sort of gentle conspiracy to give me less to write about. Their pan fried fillet of sea bream comes with roasted cauliflower, chorizo, sautéed potatoes, almonds and tomato.

I have the slow braised venison with beetroot, mushrooms and sauté potato gnocchi. The venison arrives looking like a small haggis but it is absolutely superb its rich flavour is complemented by the beetroot and mushrooms. The light and delicate gnocchi is also very good. Rock enjoys a tasty local rabbit ragu with tagliatelle, peas and basil.

A good measure of how much we like the food at any place is whether we have dessert when we don’t really need to. Rock and I share the basil pannacotta with basil wine and fresh raspberries. An unusual and very nicely flavoured pannacotta that fully passed the ‘wobble’ test. Jem has the vanilla cheesecake with blueberry confit and Sassy the warm treacle tart with clotted cream. The desserts are every bit as good as the starters and the main courses.

The second visit to The Bell has been even better than the first – partly because we shared the experience with Jem & Sassy. A third visit is definitely on the cards for us and a second for Jem and Sassy!

Lunch@The Ibex Inn, Chaddleworth

Today I’m meeting Antonio at The Ibex Inn, Chaddleworth. The Ibex Inn is a country pub in a small, picturesque Berkshire village. I’ve read positive reports about their food and their chef, Kai Taylor, seems to have some interesting ideas. Antonio loves his food almost as much as I do – so this should be a great place to meet.

Antonio gets there before me and, as he is by himself, he orders a pint of Billy No Mates.  It is a very decent pale ale from Chaddleworth’s Indigenous microbrewery. When I arrive the sun is shining and so I order another beer from the Indigenous range – the Summer Solstice, even paler and refreshing on a summer’s day.

The menu consists of British pub classics with a modern twist and all the produce is sourced from within a 40 mile radius apart from the fish – which is delivered daily from Brixham. Antonio decides to try the Ibex steak burger with bacon, cheddar & fries. It is a very high quality burger, well presented with fabulous fries. He loves it.

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I want to be slightly more adventurous and ask for the curried crispy Brixham cod loin with fries and a Bombay mayonnaise. When it arrives the cod is covered in a beautiful crisp batter, with great fries and the Bombay mayo carries just the right amount of curry spices. Fantastic. Kai comes out of the kitchen to check we, and other diners, are enjoying the food. He talks to us about his approach and shows a real desire to please his customers.

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We have enjoyed our food so much that we are now tempted to try the desserts. I pick Kai’s bounty bar torte with textures of pineapple. It is artistically presented, the chocolate torte is rich, I’m pleased that the coconut element is not too pronounced and the mix of fresh pineapple, pineapple pearls and coulis are refreshing. But, overall, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as I enjoyed my main course. Antonio likes the sound of the caramel pudding & brownie sundae. When it arrives, he really likes the taste of it too.

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The Ibex Inn is a really good find. Friendly and excellent service and a clear desire to produce pub food that is better than most. We will definitely be back.

Lunch@The Dundas Arms, Kintbury

Today I’m catching up with Gary at The Dundas Arms. The Dundas Arms is a picturesque 18th century riverside pub in Kintbury, Berkshire. In the past the food here has been very good but neither Gary or myself have been here for a while, so…it will be interesting to see if the food is as good as we remember.

Gary has the grilled Cornish sardines to start with herb buttered toast and tomato & bacon jam. I have the scotch egg with date & apricot chutney. Gary really enjoys the sardines, while my scotch egg is not as exciting as some I’ve had recently but I love the chutney.

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The breast of free range chicken has Gary’s name on it and he also gets Wye valley asparagus, lemon crushed potatoes and a salsa verdi. I decide to be adventurous and try the pork belly, spring onion & herb potato cake served with tenderstem broccoli and a red wine sauce. Interesting and enjoyable.

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I can rarely resist a crumble and I don’t even attempt to resist today. The apple and raisin crumble is served with vanilla ice cream – I should have resisted, it is good but I really don’t have room for it. Gary, though, polishes off the sticky toffee pudding with honeycomb ice cream….without any difficulty at all.

Great to spend time with Gary and great to find that the food at the Dundas Arms was worth the trip!

Lunch@The Vine Tree, Norton

Today we are meeting Edda & Roots for lunch at The Vine Tree in Norton. The Vine Tree is a country pub situated close to the border between Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. We’ve been here many times before and the food is usually good. The early conversation centres around hi-fi as Roots & Edda are in the process of acquiring a decent source of music for their home. I think we can help – I have some stuff in our attic!

I have a pint of Rare Breed from the Butcombe Brewery and Roots has an Elmers from the Flying Monk Brewery. My Rare Breed is a refreshing golden ale while Roots’ Elmers is a very drinkable pale bitter. Edda amplifies her senses with a glass of viognier and Rock an elderflower pressé.

Roots has the crispy Port Isaac squid served on a wooden deck, Edda has a turntable of goat’s cheese with a fennel & radish salad and an orange & chervil dressing. I have the seasonal and digital (as in like fingers) tempura vegetables. All the starters go down well.

I move on to the seared fillet of sea bass with fennel, thyme new potatoes, roasted hazelnuts and a rhubarb sauce. My sea bass is cooked well and fine tuned with an interesting sour rhubarb sauce. Edda has the caramelised shallot & beetroot tart tatin with cauliflower purée, roasted sweet potato & butternut squash and tapes of balsamic syrup. Roots has the fish pie – today’s catch in a cream, onion, muscadet sauce, topped with sliced new potatoes and a savoury herb & cheddar crumb. He loves it.

Rock tries to avoid dishes with a high fat content and chooses the plaice goujons because they are described on the menu as lightly bread crumbed. But, when they arrive, it soon becomes clear that the plaice is in cartridges of thick batter and breadcrumbs and the goujons have been deep fried. Not good but we decide against using a loudspeaker to voice her concerns.

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Treacle & stem ginger tart

For dessert both couples share the treacle and stem ginger tart with vanilla ice cream before having coffee. The beer has been very good, the food has been pretty good except for the plaice goujons, and we have really enjoyed seeing Roots & Edda.

Now….I really must have a look in the attic!

Dinner@The Farmer’s Arms, Ulverston

Tonight we are meeting my good friend and former colleague, Louise, and her husband, Peter, for dinner at The Farmer’s Arms. The Farmer’s brands itself as a family run free house in the centre of the lively market town of Ulverston.

Louise, Rock and I all start with the crispy duck spring rolls with salad and hoisin sauce. The pastry wrapper is crispy and the sauce is good but the spring rolls have only had a brief introduction to the duck. They need to be filled with far more crispy duck to be a headline starter. Peter enjoys his crusty bread with olives, tomatoes & garlic hummus.

Peter and I are working our way through the variety of beers on tap. My personal favourite is the Atlantic Hop from the Westgate Brewery in Wakefield. I have a main dish with an unusual spin on Indian spiced lamb. It is served on a very long hanging skewer and it is full of good flavours. It comes with rice, a poppadum, mango chutney and curried tikka sauce. Peter has a tried and tested favourite – a traditional American cheese burger with bacon, jalapenos, pickles and barbecue sauce all served in a brioche bun.  Louise has the Cajun chicken – slices of chicken breast marinated in Cajun spice, served on a skewer and a widespread coverage of creamy Cajun sauce. Plus basmati rice and homemade chips. Rock, as usual, has fish. It is a pan-fried white fish served with sautéd potatoes and watercress but she cannot recall what type of fish it is. It is cooked well but overall the dish is a little too greasy for her.

Peter and I have not been given any form of embargo on drinking, so more beers have been drunk and more are ordered. Peter and Louise share an Eton Mess deocrated with a fresh strawberry and a chocolate straw set at an angle. Meanwhile I lobby Rock and persuade her to share an apple and rhubarb crumble with custard. And then more beer….

Evaluating our evening in the Farmers, I would say that the food was not bad at all. The beer, the service and the atmosphere were all very good. However, if there is one key message I want to broadcast, it is that the very best part of the evening was the company. It was simply fantastic to see Louise again and to meet Peter for the first time – we had a great laugh and a great time!