Review: The Plough
Bolnhurst, United Kingdom
For what avail the plough or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail?
136 people found this review helpful
We had an excellent meal here and were made to feel very welcome. Portions were so generous that (sadly) we were unable to eat any puddings, although I did have enough room left for an absolutely sensational selection of French cheeses, which I can honestly say is the best cheese board that I have ever experienced in my life, and certainly better than the one that I had at The Vine House in Paulerspury the night before. We both had a starter and a main course, we shared a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, I had the French cheese selection then a glass of 1973 Baron de Lustrac Armagnac, while my lovely wife had a decaffeinated coffee with Tia Maria and cream. The bill came to £89.95 and we left a tip, so that rounded it up to £100 for the two of us.
We did indulge in some luxuries at the end, which we wouldn't usually do but that did obviously bump the price up quite a bit. The two courses each plus the bottle of wine would have cost us just under £68, which for food of this standard does not seem unreasonable. If you want top quality food but are on a really tight budget (don't worry, I know what that feels like) I would suggest fillet of Hake, Skate wing, fillet of Plaice or whole lemon sole. These are all currently £14.95 and include two side dishes, as well as a choice of herb butter or tartare sauce.
Here's a (much) more detailed analysis of our experience. We arrived at about ten past six in the evening as we weren't sure what Friday rush-hour traffic was going to be like, they don't open until six thirty and we were the first customers to arrive in the car park, so we decided to take a few photos to keep ourselves entertained. The outside of the building looked extremely smooth and white and freshly painted, and it wasn't until we came back out again that we realised that – in the dark – the walls don't look nearly so smooth, because you can see the indentations in the walls where the internal wooden beams are.
Although this is still theoretically a pub, it seems on first appearances that the vast majority of the floorspace has been set up for use as a restaurant. As we went in the front door we turned left into a very small bar area, and were asked whether we wanted to drink in the bar first or to go straight to our table. We said that we would prefer to go straight to our table and headed left towards a large dining area with a waitress standing near the entrance arch, but were informed that actually we were allocated to one of other dining areas. This involved us going back to the front door and going the other way, as if we had come in through the front door and turned immediately right.
The dining room that were in gave the impression of being a very old part of the building, with a very small window, thick stone walls and wooden beams everywhere. We were provided with six slices of house bread and olive oil, which is complimentary, and were offered more when that had been consumed. We declined, as we were hoping to leave enough room for a dessert.The bread tasted a tiny bit salty and was really tasty with the olive oil, but we certainly didn't need any of the salt that they had also provided. They offer a range of different nibbles at £4.50 each or a selection of three for £9.50, which apparently would be enough for 2-4 people. We didn't want those, for the reason already mentioned. One of the really clever things about this place is that they keep offering ways of bumping your bill up a bit further, in the same way that a lot of websites (e.g. Vistaprint, Amazon, GoDaddy) seem to. This gives you the option to take a more frugal path or to splash out a little more if you so choose, and at no point are they brash or pushy about it, unlike some of the websites mentioned. As an example, you can have 25ml of aged balsamic vinegar with the bread and olive oil for £2.
As we ate at The Vine House in Paulerspury the night before it is inevitable that we will be comparing the two meals. The Vine House is rated four out of ten by The Good Food Guide 2014 whereas The Plough managed a five out of ten, suggesting that The Good Food Guide believed that food at The Plough was better. Obviously they are the experts and they base their ratings on the experiences of a large number of people over the course of a year, whereas we are basing our opinion on just one meal at each establishment, but we felt that the cooking at The Vine was more adventurous with flavour combinations and certainly more artistic with presentation than The Plough. Having said that they offer significantly fewer options, with the menu at The Vine only offering three starters, three main courses and three desserts, so The Plough are dealing with far more customers at any one time and far more dishes. Every now and again we would hear distant shouting which sounded a bit like a football coach yelling at their team, which my lovely wife eventually worked out was probably the different orders being barked out to the kitchen team.
As a starter my lovely wife had Portland crab with coconut, chilli and cashews, which was served with a salad of baby gem, coriander, beansprout and lime. There was a generous portion of mixed white and brown crab meat laced with coconut, accompanied by a decent amount of salad for a starter. Overall this dish was a bit of a disappointment, although everything in it worked and no ingredient overpowered any of the others. After the amazing presentation of the beetroot and fig starter at The Vine, and the unusual flavour combination of fig with truffle oil, this somehow seemed just a little more pedestrian. Everything was beautifully fresh, you could taste all the separate ingredients and they went well together, but the “wow factor” just wasn't there for us. We always try each other's food, in case you were wondering why it was “us” rather than “her”.
My starter was pan-fried lamb sweetbreads with girolle mushrooms, peas, tarragon and a red wine sauce. My main concern with this was that too much tarragon can make a dish quite bitter, but I needn't have worried, in fact arguably it could possibly have done with a touch more tarragon. This was definitely better than my starter of smoked haddock, gazpacho mousse and heritage tomatoes at The Vine. As well as peas there was also a bed of pea purée, which again had a hint of tarragon running through it, and the red wine sauce had been reduced down so that it was really intense, which beautifully set off the sweetness of the peas. There were all sorts of textures going on in this dish too, with the crunch of the peas, the smoothness of the pea purée, the sprigs of tarragon, the intense liquid around the edges, the gloopiness of the girolle mushrooms and the creamy texture of the lamb sweetbreads. I have a tendency to overcook lamb sweetbreads and liver in general, but this was perfectly timed. If I was going to change anything I might have added a little more tarragon and provided something to absorb the remains of the sauce, such as a small piece of toast, as I hate wasting anything! I was reduced (sorry for the pun) to running my fingers around the plate to ensure that none of the delicious sauce went to waste, although I could have asked for a spoon or some more bread if I wasn't so excited at the taste sensations, and so keen to go on eating.
For her main course my lovely wife had skate wing with creamed potato and creamed spinach, although you can choose any two side dishes and they are included in the price. You also have a choice of tartare sauce or herb butter. My lovely wife makes absolutely gorgeous mashed potato, but even she had to admit that this creamed potato was as good as her own amazing mashed potato. The skate wing was absolutely enormous and glisteningly fresh, again timed to perfection. Nothing pretentious about this at all, just good, solid, deliciously fresh food, cooked to perfection. I did have to help out with eating it, as my lovely wife was struggling with such a huge slab of skate wing.
My main course was roast monkfish with a fricassée of girolle mushrooms, broad beans, peas, tarragon and new potatoes. Yes, I realise that there are quite a few similarities between my starter and my main but I love lamb sweetbreads, I love monkfish and I wanted us both to have main courses that would hopefully go reasonably well with our white wine. This was a much less substantial main course than what my wife had, but also a lot more complex. There was a bed of spinach with the medallions of monkfish arranged along it, but that was as close as it went to artistic presentation, it was stacked up a little and that was all. Tastewise, however, it was much better than the rustic appearance might have implied, and when all is said and done it is what the food tastes like that is paramount.
Those of us that can remember the “nouvelle cuisine” phase are well aware that artistic presentation can sometimes come at the cost of full-bodied flavours, although Marcus Springett at The Vine still manages to combine excellent artistic presentation with complex and skillful flavourings. Anyway this ragtag tumble of fish, vegetables and fungus was surrounded by a creamy-coloured sauce which I am assuming was from the girolle fricassée. Whereas the red wine sauce had been intense and reduced, this one was more gentle and creamy and mushroomy, but the concoction again worked well. An interesting combination of textures again, because you had the spinach and broad beans adding new tingles of the tongue, and I liked it. My main course at The Vine was so memorable that I have completely forgotten what it was already! I am informed by the ladies that it was saddle of Suffolk lamb with garlic mushroom pâté and wild mushrooms. Anyway, moving swiftly on…
At this point my lovely wife was totally full, but I still had room for a little more. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had chosen a dessert and made my lovely wife sit there to watch me eating it, I could have been storing up a lot of trouble for myself in the months ahead, and possibly even years to come. What we negotiated in the end was that I would have a selection of cheeses while my lovely wife continued to imbibe the Sauvignon Blanc, then after that we would review the pudding situation. My lovely wife didn't particularly fancy any of the desserts that were on offer anyway, and I tend to prefer savoury things to sweet.
Whereas most places (such as The Vine House) simply offer a cheeseboard, The Plough actually offers three different cheeseboards: British, French or Italian. The cheese board at The Vine had been British and had been good but not brilliant, served with oatmeal biscuits and quince jelly. The cheeses at both establishments were properly looked after and properly presented, but the one at The Vine didn't really have the wow factor for me, whereas the one at The Plough was absolutely amazing. This was definitely the high point of our meal at The Plough for me.
They also include recommendations on their menu of a good wine to go with the cheeses and sell it in small bottles, so that connoisseurs can have the ultimate gastronomic dining experience. That is real class, and certainly highlights the fact that you are not dealing with typical “pub grub” here. This is an establishment with culinary ambition, here to be taken seriously. Their dessert menu also includes recommendations of suitable dessert wines next to specific dishes.
The French cheese board – the cheese board itself might not have been French but the cheeses on it certainly were, you could tell that from the strong odour – came with: Mothais à la Feuille, made from goats' milk; something that The Plough calls Epoisses La Cave but which I suspect is actually Époisses de Bourgogne, made from cows' milk; and Bleu des Basques, made from ewes' milk. They were served with water biscuits and Confit de Pinot Noir (the grape, not the wine). Now the wonderful thing about French cheese is that I have tried a large number of their cheeses over the years, and naturally I have liked some more than others, but you could try a new French cheese every day of the year and still not have run out of new ones to try, simply because there are so many. It's brilliant. At the time of eating my main course at The Plough my favourite French cheese was Reblochon, which smells so awful that you have to put it in it's own airtight container in the fridge, but which tastes surprisingly creamy and smooth and nothing whatsoever like the smell would suggest. Since trying the French cheese board here my favourite French cheese is Époisses de Bourgogne. They've converted me!
Mothais à la Feuille is a bit different to the goats' cheeses that I have tried in the past, in that the soft ones can be really soft, almost like a creamy white mousse, whereas the hard goats' cheeses can sometimes be so hard in the middle that it almost feels as if you are eating chalk. This one was somewhere in between, not really hard or soft but definitely closer to soft than hard. Apparently during the maturity period it is covered in a protective chestnut or sycamore leaf coating, and this certainly gives it a more complex flavour than some run-of-the-mill soft goat cheeses.
The Époisses was where the strong smell was coming from, but in the same way that Reblochon doesn't taste anything like what the smell might imply, the taste of Époisses is again nothing like the smell. However, whereas Reblochon is very mild and creamy, this has a far more complex flavour and even has occasional hints of the pepperiness of ripe Camembert at times, it really entertains the tongue. Apparently Époisses de Bourgogne is washed repeatedly in Marc de Bourgogne, which would explain the more complex flavour, although obviously I can't be 100% certain that the product that I was served at The Plough was Époisses de Bourgogne. I shall definitely be seeking this cheese out in future, and if I can't find it in the UK I would be prepared to pop over to France at some point to track it down.
Bleu des Basques tastes good but doesn't really float my boat. The water biscuits worked reasonably well but arguably broke too easily when spreading softer cheeses on them, and the Confit de Pinot Noir had a more mild taste and was more wobbly than I was anticipating, especially after the more robust (both physically and flavour-wise) cube of quince jelly served with the cheese board at The Vine House. Overall the cheese board experience was totally delicious. 110% for that one!
We were both full up at that point, so finished with a “calypso coffee” and a glass of Baron de Lustrac 1973 Armagnac. A great finish to a great meal. The only slight downside was a large and spiky piece of wood which was in a metal rack just inside the front door, and which leapt out from that rack in a vicious effort to maim my lovely wife as she was walking past. All the other logs were very well behaved, but you always get one.
136 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.