I owe Amy Stephenson two things: an acknowledgement for her fair and constructive replies to my original review of the Plough and Flail (see here), and an apology. The latter is for referring to her as the sparky waitress with a broad Lanky accent, when in fact she is the General Manager – but then in the absence of a name badge I did not know any different. In fact, Amy’s attitude fully justifies her role at this glorious country pub, and I hope she passes it on in spades to the rest of her team.
This is an addendum to my initial review, having been for a second visit with my mother. Mum is a keen food critic in her own right, renowned within the family at least. She, like me, knows the Plough and Flail of old, has eaten there and was very keen to sample the delights using her encyclopaedic tastebud memory as a point of comparison. That she recently spent months in hospital has only enthused her further, though her appetite is not yet what it once was.
Having met Amy, we began correcting the issues encountered from the start. Best of all was being located right by the glorious open fireplace with a splendid blaze, thus it was warm, well-lit and not hidden away in a side room for staff to forget.
Getting the right table is of course the key to success in any restaurant, though pubs generally avoid the politicisation of table acquisition, whereby the best are always reserved for celebs and hangers-on – leaving the hoi polloi tables on the flight path to the kitchen or the loos, for example. On this occasion, our young waiter, personally nominated by Amy, was charming and attentive throughout and did not forget anything; even stoked the fire at regular intervals.
Tell the truth, we didn’t give the menu the in-depth scrutiny that it deserved, though there are further opportunities down the line, since J W Lees is launching a new menu on 22 March. Surprisingly, mum chose what in 2016 is a relatively prosaic and stereotyped pub grub meal, the lasagna. This version was at least homemade, came with an excellent salad and fair-to-middling garlic bread; it was nothing hugely special, but then you have to get into the realms of fine dining menus with open lasagne and fresh langoustine before this regulation comfort food becomes anything more exciting. It was as good a £10 lasagna as you are likely to find on any pub menu, reasonably meaty and all the better for being baked with a good cheesy topping.
Having previously tried a very concentrated steak and ale pie, this time I went for the current champion of gastropub dining, belly pork. I’ve written before about how the humble belly of a pig, once eschewed for being fatty and therefore undesirable, became the ubiquitous flavour of the month, by virtue of being tasty and easy to slow-cook – though it’s amazing how many otherwise decent restaurants fail to do it justice. Here it came as “braised and glazed Dingley Dell pork belly, black pudding mash, honey roast apples & parsnips with grain mustard sauce,” of which more anon.
But first, pork: Dingley Dell is, for the uninitiated, a renowned supplier of quality and welfare-friendly pig products, based in Suffolk. It is to the credit of chains that they now recognise the importance of top quality raw materials, where once they used the cheapest pile-’em-high-and-sell-’em-cheap wholesale butchers – though that is merely a reflection that we, the dining public, have woken up our ideas and appreciated the difference top notch products make to our dining experience; also that animal welfare is now a critical factor in our purchasing decisions after years of battery cruelty thrust upon us.
There is no doubt that happy, slow-grown free-range pigs (and well-chosen old breeds at that) make for better tasting pork, and they are never happier than when allowed to root around, roll in mud, stay within families in self-contained shelters, eat a natural diet and rear their young as nature intended. This should be the base standard for all meat production; offering cheap-and-uncheerful meats adds no value, though there will always be a market for the lowest prices, regardless of quality. My hope for the future is that living standards will improve and people can afford to devote a higher proportion of their income to quality foods.
But I digress. The meat in this case was well-cooked and well-presented, albeit in the voguish but pointless vertical style, and benefitted from the tangy grain mustard sauce. Perhaps some crackling would have been welcome, but I have no complaints about this pork, nor with most of the accompaniments.
The issue (minor) I do have is that supplementing mash with hunks of black pudding adds nothing to a fine piece of meat. There are many ways of serving mash that would complement and enhance the flavour, but this is not one of them. Belly pork is rich and fatty; so is black pudding. Chive and garlic mash might have worked well, even a mustard mash. I hope the new menu is more sympathetic to such incongruities.
Coffee, wine and beer apart, that was all we ate – but mum was happy and all is well with the world. I will return to the Plough in due course and look forward to meeting my new friend Amy. I wish her every success, though clearly she does not need my good wishes. Maybe in due course I’ll be reviewing her own restaurant?