Food 2017 – More Local Food Options, Northamptonshire

These reviews result from being asked to help out with a series of mystery shopper trips to pubs lined up for some local food awards. The deal was we would be told where to go, and would pay for our own meals. As a result of needing to use the report forms, these reviews may take a slightly different format to my usual ramblings. Anyway, of the three we went to, we hit two that we liked and one we really didn’t.

Thursday 10th August, 2017 – The Navigation Inn, Thrupp

We’d booked online because we’d been asked to do a review of the place, so we didn’t want to risk not getting a table. As it turned out The Navigation Inn staff obviously have some trouble navigating their own booking system, as they couldn’t find us in their system. My confidence took a further knock when we asked to have a pre-dinner drink; this request seemed to confuse our waiter, who informed us we’d have to collect our own drinks from the bar! Actually doing this took a long time and we were eventually told quite abruptly by a rather surly barmaid that we needed to stand on the other side of the bar if we wanted her to serve us (which could easily have been communicated to us far sooner in the process).

One of the items on the menu contained “artichoke” but didn’t specify if it was globe or Jerusalem. I don’t like the latter so I asked them to clarify. This proved difficult with the waitress eventually bringing me one so I could tell them. This may have been down to linguistic confusion rather than not knowing though it suggests a somewhat worrying disconnect between the kitchen and the reality of ingredients that the chef also couldn’t say.

During the meal service was fine if somewhat confused with more than one member of staff asking the same questions and it seems to me that it would be better if they assigned staff to specific tables rather than having them roaming loose with no one responsible for anything.

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As for the food, well… the ingredients were good quality when they started out but I felt their preparation was not very imaginative (or rather it was but not always in a good way). Portions were on the large side, and we struggled to finish our mains.

The specials weren’t particularly seasonal, apart from the fish, and some of the flavour combinations simply did not work. I ordered the risotto of the day as a starter, which was decently enough cooked with the rice just the right side of al dente, but the addition of Borretane onions (mis-spelled on the menu) which are onions pickled in Balsamic and thus quite sweet, was just odd. They really didn’t work at all with the chicken and spinach and spoiled the dish for me.

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Lynne’s starter was the only thing that really worked, in the shape of a Scotch egg, although again the sauce was a bit peculiar. It’s described as a saltimbocca Scotch egg on the menu, and claims to be soft-boiled (it wasn’t) and by the way, sage really doesn’t go with Hollandaise.

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Also odd were the pomegranate seeds added to the linguine which was served to accompany the swordfish steak I ordered as a main. Why? Just why? In what world is that a good idea? This is not “Mediterranean-inspired” cooking. This is a lack of understanding of ingredients (and for that matter of basic geography). Maybe we should have gone for the “Neapolitan pizza, freshly prepared by one of our trained pizzaiolos and cooked in our wood-fired oven, or one of our dishes cooked in our charcoal-fuelled Josper grill“. Either way, it wasn’t enthralling, the swordfish being precisely-cooked, but bland.

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As for Lynne’s pumpkin ravioli, the less said the better. We suspect it had been sitting around a hot kitchen for too long and the pasta, which was too thick anyway, had dried out and gone hard. It also needed some sauce or something to counteract both the dryness and the sweetness of the filling. This was a ham-fisted attempt at pasta and should never have made it out of the kitchen.

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I should say that the swordfish steak and the risotto were both perfectly well cooked – and everything was delivered piping hot – the dishes just lacked inspiration for me. Most of what we had was bland and/or sweet and as we didn’t have dessert, this is not a good thing in my book.

The wine list at least was relatively interesting, even if they did seem to have  trouble grasping the idea of bringing it when asked to do so. Initially the order was partly missed, and then brought in the wrong order and we had to repeat our request for water to accompany it.

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The venue itself is attractive enough, being an old building with a lovely terrace overlooking the canal (OK so the Grand Union is not the most inspiring stretch of water but there’s plenty going on). In the sunshine the terrace was perfect – unfortunately if you had one of the tables in the middle of the interior (as we did), once the sun started to go down it shone right in your eyes, which made for an uncomfortable experience as you had to squint at your dining partner. It would be nice if the seats were arranged so that doesn’t happen or if they’d invest in some blinds. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned they can do what they like with their windows – we’ll not be returning.

Thursday 24th August, 2017 – The Fox and Hounds, Charwelton

This was a whole different experience. When we arrived at The Fox and Hounds the staff quickly identified us from our booking and we were invited to take a seat at the bar or to go to our table if we chose to. We opted for the bar where we enjoyed a glass of the house champagne and a study of the menu, which changes daily.

We also studied the wine list, which is very interesting. It had some intriguing suggestions from less well-known regions/countries and had obviously been put together by someone who knows wine well. We chose a Turkish red to go with our meal, on the grounds that you rarely see Turkish wine outside a Turkish restaurant in the UK. Someone apparently also knows gin well so if you’re a gin lover (I’m not) you could choose from around 120 different gins!

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For starters I ordered scallops, with a delicious mousse of chicken and basil and an n’duja dressing that added a great touch of spicy heat to the dish. The scallops were perfectly cooked too.

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Lynne ordered the densely cheesy parmesan crème brulee, which wasn’t particularly brulee but was very much crème. It came with some red onion marmalade and a confit tomato (possibly from the greenhouse out the back that we could see and which was rammed with tomatoes) and a Parmesan crisp on the top. Again, a lovely dish. The portion sizes were just right for starters.

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For mains there was a breaded veal cutlet which could have been slightly crisper but was tasty and was served with a fried duck egg and some homemade mushroom ketchup. I would have liked either more ketchup or some sort of sauce but the meat was tender and moist and just right so I’m not really complaining.

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The other main was a lamb, feta and spinach parcel, the outside crisp, the meat meltingly tender. It was served with spiced bulgur wheat, pomegranate salad and honey yogurt to use as a sauce (again, I would have liked more sauce but that’s a minor niggle). It was delicious, and a perfect example of how to do “Mediterranean-style” food, unlike at the Navigation.

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Oh and the chips served with the veal were among the best chips I’ve had in a long time, big, fat pieces of potato, soft and fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside. Just lovely and just as they should be.

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The mains are on the big side so we couldn’t manage dessert though the list looked interesting.

The pub itself is plain but pleasant and as it’s run by the people in the village I’m guessing money will be spent as and when it’s available.My only argument with the place was that it was a bit cold when we were there because the doors to the garden were open (it had been a nice day) but the food soon warmed us up. It’s no surprise that it’s on my visit again list now.

Saturday 2nd September, 2017 – The Countryman, Staverton

And so at least to the third of the pubs, The Countryman, in Staverton. We were lucky to get a table, but apparently for reasons no one could quite figure out, the pub was unusually quiet. As is our habit we arrived early and were quickly greeted by the friendly staff. We were asked if we wanted to go straight to our table but we chose to head for the bar area first. We took the menus with us and studied them over a glass (and a half) of prosecco – it’s served by the individual bottle and very competitively priced.

The menu was supplemented by a specials board, which the staff pointed us towards, though they were either unable or unwilling to tell us what was on it. I suspect it was because there were several items on it and they were worried about getting it wrong. They seemed well informed otherwise about their menus. However, when asked about the source of the venison I had, they didn’t know – the waitress did ask the chef, but came back with the answer that it was “from their caterers”. The landlord did know however, and was able to tell us who their butcher is.

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We did have to remind the waitress to bring the water we’d asked for but it was then very swift to arrive. The menu was solid, although it did not initially sound too exciting, but the specials were interesting. We ordered a starter of scallops with chorizo, and a pesto salad, which were very tasty.

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The other start was black pudding on rosti, with parma ham, hollandaise sauce and a poached egg. This was also well-executed (though the rosti could maybe have been crisper) and had plenty of flavour.

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The mains were also excellent, the venison cooked just as ordered (rare), served with a celeriac mash that was just the right degree of smoothness and butteriness. There was a scattering of summer greens, and a brilliant peppercorn sauce. They were doing well so far!

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Lynne ordered the confit duck leg, with Puy lentils even though she doesn’t like lentils; she did enjoy the braised vegetables and the Parmentier potatoes, and I was happy to clear up the lentils! This was also just what you would expect, and on what was quite a cold night for early September, this was pretty much comfort food done really, really well… It felt like a massive hug on a plate.

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The portion sizes were big for the mains, and we could not manage dessert again. The wine list is pretty standard issue with a half dozen reds, a half dozen whites and a couple of roses. It’s not very exciting but it’s perfectly acceptable in a pub. The Malbec we drank was fine, and went well with the meaty mains. Pretty much all the wines were available by the glass too which is always a good thing.

While the bar area seems a bit utilitarian, the dining room is cosy and welcoming with the option to close the blinds as it gets dark. There are open fires in the rooms though they were not being used when we visited (they were in evidence on Christmas Eve when we went back again and the only thing that let them down on that occasion was the nasty pre-made pastry cases that they used for the wild mushroom tart).

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