The Green Dragon, Willington, Derbyshire

Looking at the menu of The Green Dragon in Willington I somewhat feared the worst.  Not that it looked unappealing, but it did contrive to sound much like a box standard brewery chain menu rather than the caring fresh food gastropub I had previously imagined.  Not lovingly hand-written or even printed as the kitchen decided its daily or weekly fare based on the ingredients available that week, but rather the full marketing blurb.

It’s not that being part of a chain is inherently evil, but they do have a tendency to stifle innovation and have many items delivered from the catalogue and microwaved to order.  Cooking by numbers at the lower end, though some chains aspire to greater heights.  Far better to do a radically shorter menu of fresh food than 300 items manufactured in a factory, in my humble opinion.

To high volume catering establishments, commoditisation is everything in order to feed the punters quickly, cheaply and with as little fuss as possible.  For our part we punters blandly accept poor mass-produced food far too easily.  Were we to insist on higher standards and vote with our feet until they appear, we would be rewarded.

I guess my problem is that I am tired of chain mindset and look for some spark of originality and creativity when I eat out, not to mention language that does not insult my intelligence.  Reading menus with dishes reading “chef’s special recipe…” would be a lot less corny if they weren’t part of a standard menu duplicated throughout the chain, for example.  “Home-made” is usually the antithesis of what it claims.  And as for “our world famous…” or any variant thereof, I feel like throwing up, not eating!!

Luckily, while the Green Dragon has a longish menu split roughly into “small,” “sharing” and “large” dishes, plus kids menu, sides and various other adjuncts, much as car manufacturers have fragmented their output not just into small, medium and large but in all manner of variants to suit the different segments and their subtly different requirements from a car.  One or two cheesy descriptions apart, the menu sticks to the higher end of chain cooking.  Certainly not gastropub but a tad better than the box standard.  Still ordered from a catalogue, of course.

The Dragon is very definitely an old pub placed strategically by the waterway that acts as a major thoroughfare in this part of Derbyshire. As the website says:

In the 17th century, Willington became the highest navigable port on the Trent. It first began to grow from a population of 477 with the construction of theTrent and Mersey Canal in 1777 the same year Bass beer in Burton was started, at which time it became a small inland port and a village with a public house The Green Dragon, selling locally brewed beers from Burton upon Trent for the many Irish canal navies.

It also says of the current ownership:

Bespoke Inns (Current Owners) purchased the pub off Punch Taverns in August 2009 and Bespoke are currently undergoing a major redevelopment and a sympathetic restoration of The Dragon, which will be completed in February 2011.

Feb 2011 has come and gone, so I’m assuming the current guise is as it is intended to be.  This is the current chain approach: Keep beams and period features, but do away with nooks and crannies to make the property as open plan as possible, install TVs and game machines, put tables in the garden, sell food to families in high volumes and hold events to attract yet more custom.

Given its idyllic location, the Dragon – and indeed the village – does its level best to attract interest.  The Willington Beer & Cider Fest seems to have done the trick, since the village was packed to overflowing on the Saturday during my recent visit – and that included all three pubs in said village, which for a village that size speaks highly of the passing trade coming by canal and road.  There were multiple hog roasts, bands playing, bouncy castles,

Over the course of the weekend there, my friend and I visited the pub three times: a busy Friday night dining; Saturday during the festival, and 5pm on a Sunday.  We sampled between us a variety of ciders and a fair quantity of the local brew, Marston’s Pedigree.

We also ate twice:  On the Friday, we sampled from the main menu the crab croquettes and scotch egg as starters, both of which were served on the ultra-fashionable slabs of wood.  The scotch egg was served with a large wave-form smear of curried mayo across said slab of wood.  It would have been just as good on a plate, but I dare say that touch stands out from the crowd – which is a recurrent theme.  The starters weren’t at all bad, as it happens – not vastly memorable, but competently done and tasty.

The main course also had its special touch.  Choosing the prosaic “our famous” (ie. nobody has heard of them before) fish & chips might seem like a cop-out selection but clearly thought has gone into how to make the dish a cut above from the frozen haddock fillet and McCains fries.  The haddock here was clearly good quality and showed evidence of being fresh – clean white flesh, flaking easily into fishy pearls.  The batter was reasonably crispy and the flavour met with my highly discerning approval.

But that was not what captured the attention.  A few chips were served in a mini industrial frying basket, each big enough to sink a battleship.  I’ve had jenga block chips before, constructed as a tower in a hotel in Cornwall and elsewhere, but never quite this chunky.  They are a welcome antidote to the allumette-style thin chip tendency, though to do them freshly would unquestionably require the time-consuming thrice-cooked methodology – and whopping great potatoes, obviously – so I expect they came via the freezer.  A nice touch though.  The mushy peas were more along the lines of pea puree, thereby well distinguished from anything you might find in a fish and chip shop, say.  This is dead easy to prepare from frozen peas, and does have the advantage of tasting different and, the pub would argue, slightly more upmarket from common or garden mushy peas.

So after round 1 of dining at the Dragon, opinions were pretty favourable, even if some of the peripheral details were a bit flashy and convenience food still in evidence on the menu.  The Sunday lunch menu was pretty much what you would expect. I started with the mushrooms on toast, which as the waitress pointed out is pretty much what it says on the tin.  My friend chose prawn cocktail, another dish that can be spectacular, done well (my version will be in the recipe section in due course), but has a tendency to be hugely disappointing.  With small watery prawns, dull lettuce and a bottled cocktail sauce, this was closer to the latter.

We both had the roast ribeye for main course, which was good but should have been much pinker than it turned out – maybe a function of arriving for a meal at teatime that had been prepared for a lunch sitting?  The accompaniments were good, the yorkshire crisp.  The cheese was reasonable without every being outstanding, but as a meal it underwhelmed me.  Furthermore, the £1 supplement for the beef I could accept, since it was printed on the menu, but the same supplement for cheese was not – and therefore should not have been charged.

Overall, the main menu comes out better than the Sunday lunch menu, but I just wish the owners had been that little bit more ambitious rather than trying to create a common denominator.  If however I find myself in Willington again, I would go back there – not least for the friendly service.


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