The Old Crown Inn, Messing

The Old Crown is to me pretty much a local, though one I’ve only visited once, and that only for a pint.  Messing village is but a 5-minute drive from chez Millward, and since the pub has an excellent reputation locally for its food and ambience it seemed a very decent choice for a reasonable Valentine’s meal – even if they slightly annoyed me by promising to put the Valentine’s menu on the website but failing to do so.  As it happens, the special menu read very well, of which more anon.

The background to the gastropub does however appear on the website:

This well known and popular local pub re-opened on 1st May 2013 after a complete refurbishment and is enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.  Local farmer Malcolm (Mac) Campbell and his wife Penny have taken it over and combined the best aspects of a traditional friendly village pub with a lively bistro atmosphere, enhanced by the light interior and simple décor.

Penny is in charge of the restaurant and kitchen. She has a wealth of experience having been in the catering business for over 35 years and has worked for several well-known establishments producing gourmet food. She has brought together her own hand-picked team of experienced and talented chefs.  Food is all freshly prepared with an interesting selection of dishes and also a menu for light meals.

Mac was born and bred in Messing and is a familiar figure locally, either working on the farm or chatting to customers in the bar at The Old Crown.  Come and sample the excellent food and the draught beer and enjoy the convivial company.

The setting of high expectations is matched by the award of Best Community Pub of the Year for 2013 by Essex Life magazine in their Food & Drink Awards, though I failed to locate any review on their website; other reviewers think highly of the Old Crown though, and judging by its popularity on an absolutely foul night that speaks volumes.

Getting to Messing in torrential rain and what for this part of the world passes for strong winds was the difficult bit.  Once inside the door it felt like the entire village had retreated to the pub for protection and the warmth of a lovely log fire.  And why not, since the comfortable ambience scored a big hit.  In spite of the gathered throng in the entrance lobby, a waitress confirmed our table, pointed out said Valentine’s menu on a blackboard and brought us drinks, before finally ushering us to our table with conspicuous efficiency of a type you are by no means guaranteed in country gastropubs.

The characterful dining room to the right of the bar was stripped to teal-painted wooden wall coverings adorned with beautiful monochrome photographs (for sale) depicting yachting from unusual angles.  This room had evidently been equipped from auctions or other sources of non-matching beautiful old furniture, stripped down to bare wood, with several seats being retired church pews.  A flower pot with growing flower was a nice touch on the table, though no red roses for Valentines.

The menu (see picture above) compensated by virtue of attractive dishes, and warmed to its theme through the inclusion of hearts in several items.  For balance, we selected a warm salad of quail breasts and a twice-baked goats cheese soufflé and beetroot salad for starters, and for mains rump of lamb and an individual fillet steak Wellington.  A good sign came in the form of a fine basket of artisan breads in three varieties.  Get that wrong and it will be noticed, but this was a basket worth noting.

Both starters proved successful, though you wondered whether the quail breasts looked so awful that they needed to be camouflaged beneath a thick layer of watercress.  Soufflés are not necessarily as difficult to make as their reputation might suggest, though in twice-cooked form they are almost foolproof.  Mine was of firm consistency and well-balanced cheesy flavour, matched harmoniously with sweet beetroot and – well, nutty walnut in the salad.

After this promising start, it is with great sadness that I must turn to the mains.  The essential rule for both rump of lamb and fillet of beef is essential:  do not overcook.  The lamb had lost almost every vestige of pinkness, though the waitress did offer me the chance to send it back.  I declined largely because we were both well into the main courses by that time, though in other circumstances I would certainly have accepted, in spite of a very tasty pommes dauphinoise accompaniment.  This was Valentine’s night, after all, and sending stuff back to the kitchen is not a romantic gesture – you would rather it was right first time so you were not pressed into making the decision in the first place.

But if the lamb was overdone, the steak was massacred beneath its pastry crust.  I mean, it was cremated – waving the white flag in surrender.  Its tenderness and succulence had long since been abandoned.  My companion, not one of life’s complainers, stoically chewed and chewed and chewed until she had emptied her plate, though had I been able to spot how far gone was the steak at the point of serving maybe both dishes would have been returned and to hell with the niceties of a Valentine date!  A great shame, since it appeared to be a good quality and flavourful piece of meat, but given what is a kitchen staffed with moderately talented chefs I would have expected far better.

I guess for evenings like this the company and ambience should be judged most important, and, despite marginal lapses with cutlery, the service was warm and friendly throughout.  But the kitchen must sort out overcooked mains without delay – for me that is a show-stopper, and while the country set in Essex might generally prefer their meat blood-free, both dishes should have been pink by default or at least discussed in advance by the waitresses.

One more word on the mains: the braised red cabbage was nothing like as good as my home-made, but to me a good sweet-sour red cabbage needs to be prepared and cooked well in advance and allowed to mature and deepen its flavours.  Alas, not the case here.

The wine (a well-judged Primitivo) and desserts (strawberry and passion fruit pavlova for her, lemon posset for me) partly compensated, though my companion did point out that a friend of hers would have been greatly disappointed not to have been given a fork as well as spoon.  Dining standards demand that level of attention to detail and not to have to ask!

As always, I will send my review to the restaurant and welcome their comments, but as it stands, and in spite of the many good things on offer at The Old Crown Inn, I don’t think I would be tempted to return.  There is much competition in these parts from ambitious and competent restaurants.  Maybe they deserve a fair crack too, and hopefully they get the basics right.

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