A ringing endorsement for robust seasonalityThe interior of an old country inn, that from the outside looks unchanged and unchanging, is the last place I would expect quirky decoration in a dining room. Huge wooden benches with very high backs wrapped in rough blankets held on with leather straps. Glass carriage lamps on the walls, heavy pewter plates, a mixture of antique chairs and heavy oak tables all make for an unexpected charming atmosphere on a warm May evening.
Redecorated by interior designer Ilse Crawford in 2009, who includes Soho House, New York in her portfolio, the dining room is a lot of fun and not the only surprise. The menu is resolutely seasonal, including spring flavours and textures at every turn. Head Chef, James Ferguson, trained by Ramsey and Hartnett with time spent in the kitchens of Fergus Henderson and Marco Pierre White at L’escargot has crafted a menu quirky enough to match the decor, but not too outré to put off the casual diner.
What it isn't is old fashioned country hotel dining, it is very modern even if the flavours are rooted in the fields, seas and gardens of England. Smoked ham hock terrine with spiced courgette chutney or whole quail , English peas, gem lettuce and mint couldn't shout louder about their terroir if they tried. My starter of fresh channel island crab, rock samphire and cucumber delivered a sweet seaside subtlety in the meat offset by the earthy note in the samphire and held together by the long strips of cucumber.
English asparagus, Ragstone goats cheese and elderflower cream, left the asparagus to do the talking. The cream a delicate mix of the Herefordshire unpasteurised cheese and local elderflower was a little too subtle and too creamy for my philistine palate and while delightful on its own didn’t actually enhance the fresh, zingy asparagus.
A main of saffron braised squid,fennel and grilled truffle potatoes delivered a rich sauce to accompany the delicately spiced and perfectly soft squid. The big surprise were the potatoes, not something you often get to say. Blue, black roughly textured tubers halved and topped with a garlic cream, I hadn’t seen the like since visiting Peru and thoroughly enjoyed the novelty, one I’d like to see more of on menus.
The Tamworth pork cutlet with braised chicory, white beans and smoked bacon packed a much bigger punch, a right hook compared to the squid’s gentle jab. Its wonderfully hearty bean stew, oozing a saltiness from the bacon would have made a complete meal on its own without the huge pork chop on top. But what a piece of pig, thickly cut, golden on the outside but still moist and full of flavour, it was a piece of meat that genuinely put a smile on my face.
A short list of puddings spoke of seasonality and English comfort classics, treacle tart, orange marmalade sponge or rhubarb pavlova all sounded good but the garden sorrel pannacotta with strawberries from the Olde Bell’s garden was all we chose; that pork really didn’t leave room for much else. Perhaps the sorrel was way too refined for me. While it was a very well executed and creamy pannacotta I just couldn’t detect the flavour. The strawberries were a mixture of tiny intensely flavoured home grown fruits mixed with some larger berries that pretty obviously didn’t come from the garden. They would all have been quite happy on their own with the pannacotta so didn’t need the strawberry syrup which somehow managed to dominate the other flavours.
A minor gripe in an otherwise excellent evening.
Total cost for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 pudding, 1 bottle Albarino £100.69 inc. 12.5% service
The Olde Bell Inn, High Street, Hurley SL6 5LX 01628 825881