The Unicorn is undeniably a charming and delightful country village pub in the heart of Buckinghamshire, sensitively restored, well run and much-loved by locals. However, my first question was whether it should be classified as a pub with food or as a gastropub. Since the lunch menu sticks fairly closely to pub grub essentials such as fish and chips, ham egg and chips, meatballs with pasta and pie of the day, along with a sprinkling of more ambitious choices, the question is valid, but then the key difference is not whether the chef puts on pretentious dishes but how accomplished the dishes are and how fresh ingredients are used.
So are we talking flair or fantasy? In fact the clue was in the description of the Unicorn as a “dining pub” – and it is on that basis that I will measure it. However, we get further evidence on the Unicorn’s website about the approach instilled under the heading of “guiding principles” (a more pretentious establishment might have referred to these as “our philosophy.”)
We believe that when you go to a local pub you are looking for an experience at least as pleasurable as staying at home or going round to friends for drinks and a meal. You have fundamental expectations of your visit to The Unicorn and we build our business around them
- An inviting, clean and homely pub and garden
- A warm welcome
- A comfortable and relaxing ambience
- Beers that are Real
- Lagers that are cold
- Food that is freshly made, wholesome and tasty
- Wines that are memorable
- Friendly service that is attentive without being intrusive
And when you leave, a lingering appreciation of value, not cost.
Not sufficiently over-ambitious to lose feet on ground but certainly aspirational in terms of quality and focusing on absolutely the right things; you might consider them blatantly obvious, but you’d be amazed how many pubs get these basics wrong. Entertainments are put on, notably live music and the special nights that every pub seems to do these days (I spotted a steak night sign, and for all I know they probably do curry nights too.)
A worthy mention too for the fact that the website includes pictures and mini-biographies of all staff (including their favourite foods and drinks!) Unusually, this starts with bar and waiting staff; only at the bottom do you find “head chef and general manager” Chris – though to his credit he greeted us warmly later at the bar, clearly a man who lives by his principles.
That said, my partner (who has recently rented a small house in the village for a few months) was less impressed by a recent Sunday lunch, possibly indicative of Chris’s day off. So it was that on this occasion we ate on a Saturday lunchtime, in good company too. Some diners ventured outside to take advantage of the glorious sunshine, leaving us a pleasant table indoors.
The interior retains period features, notably beams and fireplaces, in what is a fresh, light and not decor-heavy dining room, largely in clean white but with the occasional wall in a chic terracotta colour. The chairs might have been more comfortable, but otherwise the dining ambience is pleasant and unobtrusive, which quality in my book implies that tables are not too close together, music and noise levels do not interfere with conversation, and service was there when required.
Our waitress started with drinks, which for me had to be a beautifully kept pint of Tim Taylor’s Landlord – a fine Yorkshire pale ale that typically resides in my top ten favourite beers. Unusual to see it as far afield as Buckinghamshire, but welcome nonetheless.
We skipped starters, despite the presence of an couple of beguiling options (smoked duck breast, celeriac puree, fried onions and blackcurrant glaze; pickled mackerel, horseradish cream, watercress & dill salad) and instead went for substantial mains.
Slightly out of character, she chose fish and chips – though I was encouraged to see the fish named, and whiting at that. A member of the cod family but sustainable and unquestionably sourced for being fresh and good value, evidence that Chris has eschewed the easy options of buying processed portions of cod or haddock, as many do. It looked great, with pearly flakes and crisp fresh fried batter to differentiate from the hordes. Best of all, the chips were chunky and undeniably crisp to a tee – much as I would achieve at home by triple-cooking. Even more unusual, the presence of fresh and seasonal peas on the plate demonstrated the Unicorn’s credentials to fresh ingredients with as little done to them as possible – even whizzing them up into a puree would have been too much.
The self-same peas, complemented with leaves and herbs, also found their way on to my plate alongside a wedge of mashed veg (potato and swede?) with a freshly-made pie served on top at a jaunty angle. I chose the pie deliberately to see how well crafted it would appear, fresh to order, and whether a filling of “pork, sage and mushroom” meant a traditional pork pie.
Indeed not – it turned out to be a very substantial handmade edifice of proper vertically-mounted shortcrust pastry (this is no mean achievement, trust me), filled with cubes of Cublington pork. This is the prime local ingredient, to the extent that you can buy magnificent local sausages at the bar, much as you can at the Golden Fleece in Braughing (we had pork and leek for breakfast the following day.)
The pie was good and the pastry exemplary if quite thick, though the filling lacked the depth of flavour I was hoping for – maybe not the best pie of the day, though I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in future. One item of curiosity though: the pie was supposed to come with “gravy,” usually a brown substance concocted from stock and meat juices. On this occasion the pie came with a yellow sauce I could not place and which looked odd with the rest of the dinner. It did not taste sharply of mustard, so I’m not clear what it was constructed from.
We both enjoyed good desserts, she a half-baked chocolate pudding with vanilla ice-cream (chosen ahead of the advertised white chocolate ice cream), plus the usual squirt of chocolate sauce, puff of cocoa and a strategically placed blueberry at each end of the plate (she says it was utterly delicious); mine was a caramelised apple tart (not quite but nearly a tarte tatin), served with honeycomb ice cream. Slightly more pastry and slightly less apple than I would have preferred, but the glaze was beautifully reproduced.
All in all a good lunch but not, perhaps, the best The Unicorn can achieve. I look forward to trying the evening menu when we have time to sample what Chris and his team can achieve when they are going all-out for gastropub excellence – though you will see from this example (they change frequently) that several dishes interchange between lunch and dinner, probably because they are good sellers.
As for the guiding principles, yes I think they are pretty much nailed on. It was charming and lovely in every way, not the best food I’ve ever eaten but certainly worthy of that second trip.