Food: Excellent quality pub grub earns royal seal of approval
WITH pubs closing down across the country at an alarming rate of knots, it is always heartening to see village inns surviving - often against the odds.
Being a village pub landlord these days is no easy choice of career, it being demanding upon one's time and finances, as well as being reliant on the vagaries and fickle tastes of the great British pub-going public.
Last week I and some friends visited the Royal Oak in Spark Bridge, a typical village pub which has recently changed hands. A 10-minute drive from Ulverston, Spark Bridge is an attractive little place, segueing into Lowick up the hill past the River Crake.
My good friend Eleanor lives in the village, so we gathered at her house for pre-pub gin and tonics, before heading to the Royal Oak for an early dinner. Inside, the pub is utterly traditional (log fire, low beams and a cosy bar) and, I'm pleased to report, it looks reassuringly the same, year after year, licensee after licensee.
We had booked and were given a large table opposite the roaring fire. A very friendly young barman hurried across with menus - and a bottle of Pinot Grigio appeared as if by magic. The menu is absolutely standard country pub grub, which was just what we all wanted. It's great to see gastro pubs doing well - but sometimes they can feel just a little pretentious (and so many of them these days are done out in the same sludgey colours that they all seem to merge in one's memory). Pub grub is to be celebrated, as far as I'm concerned. When it's done well, there is simply nothing to beat a classic bar meal - and when it's served in the vicinity of a roaring fire, then my cup (or glass) do runneth over.
For starters, it was classic all the way: prawn cocktails for the ladies at £5.95, soup for the gents at £4.45. The prawn cocktails came in bowls on slates (standard): loads of fresh and juicy prawns, cucumber, tomatoes and lettuce, richly buttered brown bread and little pots of Marie Rose sauce. Exactly what a good, simple prawn cocktail should be - none of your pretentious, deconstructed nonsense here.
The boys' vegetable soups came in large, lidded crock pots, with hunks of delicious brown baguettes and plenty of butter for slathering on the bread. They both loved it. Simple presentation and simple, hearty soup. What's not to like?
For mains, we chose from across the menu: a chicken rogan josh curry for Eleanor, prawn Szechuan for me; chicken in black bean sauce for Jackie, scampi for Ken and steak and ale pie for Gordon. All round the £10 to £11 mark. Apart from Gordon's pie, which came with a huge mound of mash, the rest of us had chips (the curry and stir fries came half-and-half, with rice); and we all agreed this was really good food.
Gordon's pie was superb: full of tender steak, in a rich gravy and with a Diddyman's hat of freshly baked pastry. He is usually underwhelmed by pub pie pastry - but this he loved. All the food was excellent. Well-presented, piping hot, good ingredients - and it all came together and in a timely fashion. Service throughout, in fact, was excellent.
By the time we had polished off our main courses, the pub was pretty busy. There were locals propping up the bar (not literally, of course), young farmers supping in the snug, and families dining in the main bar. The pub was by no means packed - but pleasingly busy for a midweek evening in October.
None of us was remotely hungry after all that food but we ladies ordered a slab of chocolate cake pudding and ice-cream to share - just, you know, to try it out. Purely for research. The cake was rich and delicious - and a very generous portion - but I found the ice-cream disappointing. I like my ice-cream to be very creamy, but this was more like a glorified sorbet, to my palate. However, it was the only (very slightly) disappointing element of the meal. All five of us declared ourselves impressed with the food at the Royal Oak under its new management. Service was friendly and efficient, the atmosphere was great and the food was spot-on for pub grub. A right royal evening at the Royal Oak.
Royal Oak, Spark Bridge
Pros: Cosy atmosphere, classic pub food, friendly staff
Cons: You'll need a driver, underwhelming ice-cream