The Duncombe Arms, Ellastone

Welcome to my gastropub of the year, the Duncombe Arms in Staffordshire.  In view of the fact that the Blue Anchor in Feering has yet to open, cousin to the excellent Blue Bridge in Writtle and others, that might be a big statement; but then it’s rare as hen’s teeth to find excellence in every aspect of food delivery, and in such a glorious setting.  Nothing went wrong, everything in this gastronomic theatre went on cue.  For once, the marketing hype on the restaurant website was matched and even exceeded by its execution:

The Duncombe Arms is a beautiful, traditional country pub situated at the heart of the lovely rural village of Ellastone on the Staffordshire / Derbyshire border. Located on the edge of the Peak District near the towns of Ashbourne and Uttoxeter it is a great place to visit providing a delightful setting in which to enjoy a drink, some lovely food from our bar and restaurant menus, as well as a chat with friends or family.

We were delighted when award-winning chef, Matt Wadsley joined The Duncombe Arms as our Head Chef.  Matt started his career at the highly acclaimed Nottingham restaurant World Service where he played a part in achieving many awards, he then moved on to Tonic, also in Nottingham,where they received two rosettes.

Matt is committed to providing our customers with a delicious range of dishes using only high quality ingredients, locally sourced where possible, the team have been working hard on our new summer menu.

At the recommendation of my companion, a local resident, we booked a table and were rewarded immediately by the sight of an excellent country pub sympathetically restored.  You suspect that in the hands of a big chain sympathy may have been in short supply, but thankfully the beauty of the original beamed pub is preserved and enhanced with hints of subtle modernity.  A contemporary feel in an old pub that actually works is undoubtedly something to write home about, so full marks to the owners, who I understand to be the Greenall family, of brewing fame.  Here, tasteful furniture and fittings, some decent art and an airy ambience work wonders – a relaxing environment in which to eat and enjoy your company, which is, after all, why you choose to eat out.

The good news continues.  Perhaps as a result of writing reviews I’ve started to get that sinking feeling wherever I go – a good start followed by a let-down somewhere along the line.  At the Duncombe Arms, the sense of impending disaster never arrived:  our drinks and orders were handled with calm efficiency, and to give full credit service was for the entire evening unobtrusive but never less than helpful.  Unlike some of my recent dining events, the food arrived in good time without ever looking rushed, and at the correct temperature.  Our wines – a meadow-fresh Chenin Blanc and a muscular Argentinian Malbec – were better than fine.  Surely something had to go wrong?

Whatever it was, it was not the food.  The menu is promising enough, maybe a tad overlong and overelaborate, but never less than mouth-watering.  We chose wisely: goats cheese mousse with salad and smoked haddock arancini (which arrived as marble-sized golden balls) to start, turbot and Derbyshire pork for mains (in spite of 31-day matured rib eye and triple-cooked chips, the same dish my kids and I had used as a celebration meal for father’s day not long since.)

Perhaps the dining experience erred towards what my companion called “pretty food” in that it looked utterly ravishing on the plate, even though my preference is for excellent ingredients to speak for themselves without fussiness.  My tendency as a cook is to choose robust flavours over and above presentations that prove empty on the palate.

Here, the works of art created by Mr Wadsley were not at the expense of flavours.  Both starters were a riot of colour and flavours, subtle flavours in the case of the smooth, creamy and slightly bland cheese mousse encased in cucumber, reclining on a bed of beetroot, but complementary nonetheless.  The sweetness of honeycomb wafers echoed the sweetness of beetroot and the delicacy of the salad.  Well done to the kitchen, though a explosion of savoury essence would not have hurt the dish.

The good start progressed through to the mains, which if anything went for the full canvas in presentation but won out mainly through being well-cooked, tender and packed with glorious combinations of texture and flavour.  Take my pork dish, described on the menu thus:

Derbyshire Pork Three Ways £18

Slow roasted crispy belly, braised cheek, sautéed tenderloin, apple purée, mashed potato, red cabbage, red wine jus

It delivered precisely what it said on the tin.  The contrast between the three choice cuts worked to porky perfection, and for once the belly was spot on: fat rendered away, meat tender, crackling crisp, on a small sea of sticky jus held on the shores by a coastline of puréed potato – and it’s not often you could say that in a lifetime.  £18 seemed not unreasonable for a dish prepared and cooked so beautifully, thus proving my oft-quoted point that value for money is not found by the lowest price tag.  This was class cooking, demonstrating fine attention to detail throughout.

We finished with a platter of cheeses from the cheese shop at Hartington, the village where once I spent six months working in the youth hostel, and thankfully not fridge-cold.  Next time I go to the Duncombe Arms, I will be tempted by desserts such as an apple pie creme brulée served with toffee apple, though there are many more gorgeous dishes worth a go.  Worth starving yourself for a couple of days to sample the delicacies here.

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