Fox & Raven, Chelmsford (Vintage Inns)

I’ve written before about Vintage Inns, a pub chain that looks the part but typically underachieves in the gastronomic sense by virtual of appealing to the lowest common denominator and doing very little with raw materials from scratch.  I would have greatly more respect for chains if they actually cooked food rather than reheating the vast majority of it, a lot, you suspect, brought in as convenience dishes from the freezer via the microwave or deep fryer.  Vintage Inns would point to their packed pubs as a sign that they are giving people what people want.

OK, so I have my foodie prejudices, but not enough that I am not prepared to give Vintage Inns another chance.  It is, after all, better than a number of its ilk and does tend to occupy pretty country pub buildings, though makeovers that destroy the character of a pub generally don’t meet with my approval.

So then, I will cast aside my own thoughts and judge the Fox and Raven purely on its merits. It was suggested as a venue by an acting friend I had not seen for some time, partly because it is local to her and partly because she had a voucher for 25% off food – a reminder that these chains are marketing-led and win business by endless rounds of promotions.

There’s no doubt that his is a very fine building and a splendid location on a warm, sunny evening.  Despite my words of warning above, the interior has been remodelled with some thought, even if it is at the expense of some period features.  At least the beams and fireplaces survived, and the place looks much the better for them.  Cue a little history via the website:

The Fox and Raven in Chelmsford is a country pub & restaurant oozing rural charm and rustic character. Our picturesque surroundings provide the perfect backdrop for savouring the hearty, seasonal pub-food on our menu, and the carefully nurtured cask ales and fine wines gracing our bar.

The Fox and Raven has not always been a public house. The inn is listed in the 1851 directory of Springfield as the Barnes Farm farmhouse. Springfield took its name from the numerous springs in the area, and in the Doomsday book is called Springafeld.  Our stately looking inn is on The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, which runs through a largely unspoilt part of rural Essex – but if you love shopping, there’s a retail park just across the road from us.

We were served on a busy Saturday night by young staff of the same generation as my daughter.  They were willing but the quality of service varied according to the whims of which direction they were being pulled.  The waitress was pleasant and friendly but came across as a tad scatty.  On two separate occasions we had to remind staff that we had ordered drinks, which came eventually.  This is perhaps more indicative of a lack of effective training and probably a high staff turnover.

Upon viewing the menu (they also have special menus depending on the day of the week, plus the obligatory specials), my initial thought was that it could be reduced by half without any loss – less is more.  However, my eye focused in on another memory sandwiched among the mains:

Slow-cooked shoulder of lamb in a rich black barley and button mushroom sauce, served with mashed potato and glazed seasonal vegetables £13.45

Why the shock horror, I hear you ask?  Simple!  I once had a very similar dish at another Vintage Inns pub, The Crown in Broxbourne, where my daughter once worked during her A-level years.  Another great location but on that occasion the lamb was abysmal.  Fat is a friend to the cook in that it offers flavour, but badly-cooked lamb leaves you swimming in a sea of grease.  On that occasion, the dish was drowned in fat and was sent back with the waitress and some choice invective.  Would this be better?  Wait and see…

I can’t say the starters grabbed me, but at length I chose a dish of baked brie with onion chutney as a starter, while my friend went for the old favourite of “beer-battered mushrooms.”  The latter looked fine, but then they would have belonged to the freezer-to-frier school of pub grub.  The baked brie on the other hand demonstrated the virtues of flavour over presentation, since it looked more akin to a pot of cardboard skins in brown goo.  Neither was the appearance helped by an industrial pile of celery sticks or a big hunk of average bread… not attractive but tasted pleasant.  The sort of assembly that they knew would sell but which had not quite been thought through.

So to the mains. My friend’s feta and broad bean burger seemed overwhelmed by a chunky bun, where a more delicate brioche bun might have sufficed, but credit for some good chunky chips, which may at a pinch have been triple cooked.  She ate the burger (which looked a tad dry and in need of multiple condiments) and salad, left the bun, and enjoyed the fair-to-middling side order of cauliflower cheese, which arrived like a small snow-capped peak in the Himalayan foothills.

So you want to know about the lamb?  Well clearly manufactured offsite, but I’m not commenting on that.  It did not sit soused in its own fat, but in a sauce of slightly vague origins, one containing as promised the odd hint of black barley and mushrooms, but what liquid components was not entirely obvious.  Truth be told, it didn’t really taste of very much, being under-seasoned and lacking in the promised richness.  However, the accompanying mash and veg were perfectly blameless, as you have every right to expect, and unlike the baked brie it certainly looked the very picture of meat-and-two-veg British pub dining, without those fashionable cheffy gastropub touches such as vertical construction surrounded by Pollockesque dribbles of sauce – for which small mercy I am duly grateful.

We passed on desserts, though they sneakily include a special with half-size portions of dessert and coffee thrown in for good measure – bet that wows many a sweet-toothed punter.

Nevertheless, for all the fact that they try very hard to please at the Fox and Raven, the results are somehow not quite up to the aspirations set by the surroundings. I can’t help but think of this as being yet another triumph of marketing ahead of simple foodie standards.


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