You might have noticed I’ve been harping on for a while about the new addition to the Eat with Ellen team – Brandy the puppy! Yes, we took the plunge and got a dog – planned before the poor cat left us for the Rainbow Bridge but sadly she never got the chance to meet him.
Brandy came home in November and life has been pretty chaotic ever since. Having a dog does kind of change everything – well, for us it did. They’re slightly more high maintenance than cats you see. You can’t just chuck a bowl of food down and leave them to fend for themselves.
To that end, we were quite conscious that our lives would have to adapt slightly to the new four-legged member of our family, but also that she would have to get used to a life of restaurants and weekend breaks fairly quickly. And so, when I was invited to review a dog-friendly pub with rooms in Oakham, Rutland, it seemed like the planets had aligned to fit right in with our plans.
Not many people have heard of Rutland (smallest county in England in case you didn’t know), let alone Oakham. But I know it rather well, having spent my formative years in this lovely little town where I went to school. I’ve been back a few times since I left for university and all the debauchery that brought, but not for a while, and never with the chance to bore Mr M with all the stories about what’s what, where who snogged who, where choir practice was on a Thursday night and all that jazz.
And so, after the madness of Christmas and New Year subsided, instead of heading back to work we packed up our stuff and toddled off down the A14, dog in tow, for a trip down memory lane for me and to make a few new memories.
Now, while I say Oakham is lovely – which it is – I definitely didn’t appreciate it during the five years I spent there. When you’re a teenager, you don’t appreciate quaint market towns packed with independent shops and quiet pubs – you’re too busy worrying about whether you’re going to get caught in one of those pubs by a teacher.
But fast forward 15 years and it’s the stuff of lovely weekend breaks. In fact, it’s even made it on to the Sunday Times ‘Best Places to Live in Britain’ so it’s not just great to visit, but fab to live too.
Once we arrived, we decided to spend the afternoon mooching around. It was a great way of combining giving the dog a bit of fresh air and a walk with me giving Jamie the ‘grand tour’ of the town and the various school buildings dotted around in it. It also meant we could try a few of Oakham’s dog-friendly pubs, the Grainstore and the Lord Nelson, the former for a spot of lunch (and obligatory dog biscuit) and the latter to try their mulled wine (and more dog biscuits) on a cold winter’s day.
Having taken a good old wander down memory lane, we checked into the Mill Street Pub & Kitchen. It’s been open since last summer and while I’m not sure what it was before that, back when I was a teen school pupil it was The Angler, home to illicit drinking and dancing. And in the same way those days of sticky floors and cheap beer are long gone for me, they are too for this venue, which has been transformed into a chic but homely English pub.
Mill Street Pub & Kitchen is part of the ‘Epic’ group of pubs, which has a few other places including Towcester and Maidenhead and reminds me a bit of the lovely Peach Pubs group, them of the Highfield, the Almanack and several more that have appeared on this blog. They may be part of a group, but to look at each individual place you’d never know it.
Upstairs are seven rooms, and I have to say, ours was one of the nicest rooms we’ve stayed in for this blog, decorated in chic grey, with all the treats that seem to be the norm in hotels these days – Egyptian cotton sheets, Elemis toiletries, a Nespresso coffee machines. There was a tiny part of me that had hoped it wouldn’t be quite as nice as it was, given it was our first overnight stay with a dog in tow, but there are far worse things to be complaining about, hey.
Throughout the building were lovely little interior design touches, including work by a local artist and a few impressive mirrors – including in our room. The bathroom was sparklingly clean with a huge shower perfect for washing the trouble of real life away, and some rather snazzy taps that I could have watched in action for ages.
We took a bit of time to get ourselves settled, letting Brandy check out her new home for the night while Mr M took a nap on the bed that he said was one of the most comfortable he’d ever slept in. And then we headed downstairs for a few drinks and dinner.
It’s actually a fairly large pub and restaurant, but cleverly spread across several rooms – from the bar to the restaurant in a large glass conservatory at the back (dog-free if you’re not a fan), as well as a private dining room, underground ‘cavern’ perfect for music nights and private parties. The ‘snug’ just off the bar proved to be the perfect place for us to try our first restaurant meal with Brandy, giving us a quiet place where we could avoid disturbing other diners with the mini whirlwind we had with us.
There’s a nice selection of food and drink on offer at Mill Street Pub & Kitchen, with the big gins you see in so many places now, but also a little Bloody Mary menu that we couldn’t resist. Mr M went for a classic – extra spicy – while I tried an Asian Bloody Mary flavoured with lime and lemongrass.
To start, Mr M went for Welsh mussels cooked in local beer & bacon, served with a stilton roll. The sauce was a welcome change from the usual mariniere sauce, with the taste of the beer coming through nicely, while the stilton roll was warm, soft and airy with a tang of cheese.
My spiced potted prawns with lemon and dill fritters and a Bloody Mary dressing was pretty and delicate, but lost out to Jamie’s mussels in the taste stakes. I liked the mixture of textures – the soft potted prawns contrasting with the crunch of the fritters, but it just didn’t hit me in the way I had hoped.
For my main course choice, though, I definitely picked a winner. From the specials menu, I chose honey-glazed duck breast with parsnip, red cabbage, and rhubarb jus. I LOVE dishes like this – a party of colours on your plate that are pretty yet hearty all at the same time.
The duck was pink and tender, the skin crispy and sweet, with every other element on the plate complementing it perfectly, whether it was the slight tartness of the rhubarb jus, or the crunch of the cabbage and parsnip.
Aiming to turn over a new leaf in 2017, Mr M didn’t order a steak – and instead went for the venison bourguignon, which was a hearty, aromatic stew packed with meat and vegetables, seasoned well and served in an iron skillet to lend a slightly more impressive attitude to the dish.
It came with bubble and squeak which Jamie said was a great accompaniment, fitting with the slightly rustic feel of the dish. But neither of us were sure about the celeriac puree. As much as I love it, the way the plate was laid out left it feeling a bit disjointed and while you could just about get away with it with the bubble and squeak, I’m not sure it did with the puree. Don’t get me wrong, it tasted great, but just didn’t have the same visual wow factor that my plate of food had.
For some reason we weren’t able to resist a side dish on top of our already generous main courses (thank god for Christmas and its stomach-stretching aftermath), so ordered some honey and thyme glazed Chantenay carrots which were well executed with the winning combination of thyme and honey.
We’d been served so efficiently and wolfed our food so quickly, that we found ourselves not wanting the meal to be over, so decided to give in to the temptation of dessert (yes, I know, any excuse!). Jamie went for a hot chocolate fondant and white chocolate crumb and blackberry sorbet.
Another beautifully-presented dish – definitely a cut above your average pub grub and much more in the bracket of restaurant fodder. It passed the fondant test 100% and he savoured every gooey mouthful, pausing for a bit of cleansing tartness from the blackberry sorbet every now and again.
I had opted for a chocolate delice and – in keeping with my usual form of forgetting to note at least one thing down per meal – can’t tell you exactly what it was served with because I was clearly so excited about eating it that I didn’t write it down.
However, all you need to know is this. It was devilishly rich, so sweet it made you smile as it hit your tastebuds, and came with a coffee element that was brilliant executed and had none of that awful fake coffee taste that is the reason nobody likes coffee liqueurs, but instead was just the right level of bitterness to contrast with the saccharine sweetness of the delice.
Having thoroughly indulged – including a rather nice bottle of wine – we took ourselves off for a late-night walk around the town before getting settled in for the night. Brandy certainly made herself at home! We nearly made it through the night without incident – until we had to take the little madam out to relieve herself and discovered that there is actually a ‘night door’ for occasions like this.
Needless to say, setting the alarms off in the middle of the night wasn’t quite the impression we hoped to leave and while I think I could get away with not telling any of you about our red-faced moment, I thought it might help if you decide to stay at Mill Street Pub & Kitchen with your pooch. It also taught us the salutary lesson of remembering that we should always ask how to escape at ungodly hours when our four-legged friend decides she needs to go at unsociable hours!
Despite the drama, we all got ourselves some sleep and enjoyed a relaxing morning getting up and ready in our room. Breakfast is available until 11.30am so there’s no worries about missing out on it if you have a bit of a lie-in. Having eaten in the snug the night before, we decided to have breakfast in the main bar area, which is also home to a great ‘help yourself’ toast station.
Still full from the night before, I went for a healthy option of granola, pineapple and yoghurt which, if we’re honest, is never going to be a ‘write home about’ breakfast, but I felt rather virtuous for it. Mr M opted for Eggs Royale though, instantly making me jealous, and was impressed by the perfect execution, from gorgeously runny poached egg to buttery rich hollandaise sauce.
Suitably sated, relaxed, and happy to have survived our first doggie break, we said a lengthy goodbye before heading off to the local butchers where we were assured he’d have a marrow bone for Brandy to nibble on. This was just one of the bits of advice, kindness, and generally great service that we received from not one, but all of the staff at Mill Street Pub & Kitchen.
You guys know how strongly I feel about service, and the service we got here was some of the best we’ve had in a long time. Friendly without being over-familiar, knowledgeable, fun, polite and most importantly – especially on this occasion – endlessly patient.
After all, guests who bring a four-legged fiend (yes, that’s not a typo, I wrote fiend) with them, set the alarms off and ask endless questions about food and dishes are not going to be the top of your list, but every member of staff took it all in their stride and made us feel as welcome as we could possibly have felt.
Another of our helpful nuggets of advice was a good place to take Brandy for a walk before we mooched back home, so we toddled off to nearby Exton where we had directions for a great little walk in a chocolate box village that has now been added to my ever-growing list of places to return to.
And almost as soon as it had started, our first dog-friendly foodie night away was over and we found ourselves trundling back down the A14 to reality, Brandy fast asleep in the back and the pair of us overjoyed that we’ve managed to continue our favourite hobby with a great new addition to the team.
Obviously, this was no ordinary break. Our first of 2017 and our first with Brandy, so I’m bound to be a bit over-awed by it. But overall, I would have been pleased and full of positive comments even if it had been the usual combination of me and Mr M and a few drinks and a meal.
The food is good and far beyond that of an ordinary pub, the decor and rooms are welcoming and homely yet full of all the little touches and attention to detail that makes a place stand out. And, possibly most importantly, the service is great. Add to that the fact that it’s nestled in such a lovely little town near to all sorts of things to do, whether it’s a trip to Rutland Water or a stroll in the Rutland countryside, and what more do you want?
We were invited for a complimentary stay and dinner at the Mill Street Pub & Kitchen for the purposes of this blog. As ever, I’ve been honest with my views in this post, but I would like to thank everyone at Mill Street for making our first trip away with Brandy such a great experience.