When it comes to eating out, small towns are rarely going to be able to compete with their big city rivals. They don’t have the size of audience, hence they tend not to offer the volume or choice of restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, my home town of Rugby doesn’t do too badly. We’ve got a fairly good selection of restaurants, plenty of which have appeared on this blog. But if I’m honest, with Birmingham half an hour away and London less than an hour, it’s always going to struggle to compete.
Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. Rugby, and most other small towns around the country, might not have a cosmopolitan selection of chic eateries but there’s plenty of other stuff on offer that isn’t as readily accessible in big cities. Like, for example, the liberal scattering of rural gastropubs who in recent years have really upped their game when it comes to their food offering. I’ve been to one or two nearby, like The Stag at Offchurch, but nowhere near enough of them. This year’s mission is to go to some of the places that are on my doorstep as well as their urban counterparts.
Lucky for me, one of my friends lives in neighbouring Southam and is a bit of an expert on the local area. It was he who introduced me to Omar’s in Dunchurch, despite it being closer to where I live than where he does. On our latest meet-up he suggested a new one to me, the King’s Head at Napton. Literally a few minutes outside Southam, it’s on the edge of the village of Napton on the Hill and is a perfect example of a picturesque country pub.
A good country pub does not a good restaurant make, so The King’s Head took me by surprise. The menu professes to offer ‘the finest in Classic & Modern Anglo European Cuisine’ and is certainly impressive on paper. It talks a lot about ‘freshness, flavour and attention to detail’, and you get an inkling of this just from the words on the page. I don’t think flowery language necessarily guarantees good food – sometimes quite the opposite – but I reckon a bit of effort on a menu can be often be an indicator that a place is taking its food offering seriously.
The dishes are a mix of classics and more avant garde offerings. Starters range from ‘posh’ fish and chips to more unusual items like baked sicilian meatballs or teriyaki carpaccio of beef. Mains are split into the more unusual ‘King’s Head Specials’, like red spice crusted hake, to ‘King’s Head Classics’ including Hooky beer battered cod, plus a chargrill menu of burgers, steaks and beef short ribs. That’s before you even get to special nights like Gourmet Burger Night, which happened to be on when we went.
Despite the temptation of a choice of burger, two toppings and chips and onion rings for £10.95, I couldn’t resist going for some of the more unusual dishes on offer. My friend and I fancied a sharing starter of warm baked flat bread with mixed charcuterie, but instead an alternative sharer was on offer – a pastry wheel stuffed with pesto, parmesan, Monterey cheese and chorizo.
I wasn’t expecting too much, I have to confess, but we were both pleasantly surprised when it arrived. Light buttery pastry, artfully arranged, and stuffed with salty smoky chorizo, rich pesto, and stringy, oozy cheese. A lovely start to the meal.
For main I was tempted by the slow cooked blade of beef, onion confit and Shropshire Blue wellington, as well as the red spice crusted hake. The Malaysian slow-cooked beef curry off the classics menu, another thing you don’t often see on a country pub menu, also caught my eye.
But in the end I couldn’t resist the Shuckburgh Pheasant, with the added detailed description of woodland mushroom and pancetta-stuffed breast, confit of leg ‘Scotch Egg’, with creamed greens and roasted beets. It even came with the warning “may contain shot” – not just good to save your teeth, but kind of lends that idea of authenticity when you’ve chosen a game dish.
I’ve been treated to quite a few pretty plates of food recently, and this is definitely well up there. The contrasting colours of the pheasant, the sunshine yolks inside the ‘Scotch egg’, the greens, the pink beets and the creamy sauce, made an impressive rainbow of food.
The stuffed breast was tender, its pancetta wrap salty and crispy and the mushroom inside earthy and rich. The Scotch Egg, as you can see, was perfectly done with a runny yolk inside and crunchy breadcrumbs outside. The beetroot added a sweetness, as did the creamy sauce. All in all, it was a damn rich plate of food, especially after a pastry-fest for a starter, but when it comes to the King’s Head’s aim of freshness, flavour and attention to detail, this ticked all the boxes.
My pal opted for something from the classics menu, rump of beef and red wine pie with creamy mash and seasonal vegetables. Again, attention to detail when it came to presentation. A golden brown pastry top to the pie, a generous scoop of mash, a helping of veg and a miniature saucepan of shiny, thick, unctuous gravy. Very good, I’m told.
The dessert menu again offers a mix of classics like sticky toffee pudding and ‘deconstructed’ apple crumble alongside slightly different choices like carrot cake with vanilla mascarpone, carrot puree and chocolate soil, or hot chocolate mousse with clotted ice cream and triple chocolate cookie. But as tempted as I was to dive in, I couldn’t quite face it. Next time maybe.
The King’s Head was a lovely unexpected treat. Interesting menu choices, well cooked, elegantly presented, and all in cosy, welcoming surroundings. It’s not cheap, but with starters anywhere between £5 and £10, and mains anywhere between £10 and £20, it’s not unreasonable for what it is.
There’s also a wide selection of real ales for the beer fans among us, and a good wine list for those who prefer the grape to the grain. Oh, and apparently a big beer garden for the summer – a good reason to go back.
So yes, small towns in rural counties may have their downsides, but they also have their ups. A plethora of eateries and drinkeries hidden in the beautiful countryside that we don’t know about, but are just waiting to be discovered.
My friend and I paid in full for our meals. The staff at the King’s Head didn’t know I was a blogger.