A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a brand new place in Rugby for a bit of a pre-opening treat. The Tuning Fork is a little cafe-cum-restaurant right in the middle of a brand new development just outside Rugby. In a slight move away from the huge housing estates we’ve seen chucked up in the past, there’s been a bit of time and thought put into how Houlton might become more of a community.
To that end, the first thing to go up was a central little hub that saw old farm buildings converted into a visitor centre, a few spaces that might eventually house exhibitions or community events and (wait for it) a cafe. I know what the cynic inside you is saying – ‘developers move in to peripheral town location, try to win hearts and minds with something as simple as a cafe. It won’t work, people will see through it, especially when they inevitably bring some big, cheap company in to run it’.
Don’t worry, I’d be lying if I wasn’t also a bit cynical. But the thing is, while the developer might be a big old company with bucketloads of money, they didn’t do that. Instead of bringing in a cheapo chain, they got a local family-run business to give it a go. And that business in turn has made it their mission to use plenty of local ingredients, passing on the benefits to other local entrepreneurs. Looking up? Certainly was for me.
As I say, I tried the Tuning Fork back in March when I was invited to a supper club-style launch night. Since then I’ve heard mixed reviews – some raves who loved the ambience, the service and the food, while others felt it was a bit on the expensive side. I’m ashamed to say that it’s taken me ages to get back – I could claim I was allowing things to settle down and ‘bed in’, but it’s mainly due to my ever-increasing list of places to try in an effort to slightly curtail my huge amount of eating, hence fewer dinners out.
Needless to say I was delighted to hear they were opening in the evenings at weekends and used it as an opportunity to head back for a Friday night dinner with some pals. To start with, I was a bit remiss in taking a picture of the outside, but it’s an attractive venue for an evening meal, retaining the history of the converted farm buildings with a slightly industrial, slightly rustic, and slightly modern twist to the decor inside. It’s a light, airy, open plan room yet nobody’s crammed in too tightly that you feel like you’re sitting on each other’s laps.
The Friday we went there were a fair few tables in, proving it’s not just me who has welcomed a new arrival to the Rugby dining scene, and added a relaxed buzz to the room. The evening menu is far beyond the cafe you may think the Tuning Fork is. The business is run by the same family behind local catering business The Chef’s Kitchen and their experience shines through in the menu (just make sure you ignore the typos…). Many of the dishes are a confident juxtaposition of classic and ambitious, offering a slight twist on the ordinary and a step beyond the bogstandard offerings you see on menu after menu these days. They’re also careful to point out the locally sourced ingredients, like bread from the Revel Bakery or steak from nearby Onley Farm. Always a nice thing to see.
A cheery greeting started the evening well and we tucked into the wine list as we chose our starters and mains. It’s a fairly extensive list for a small place, with beers and other drinks on offer too. Unable to resist the starters, I went for the duck and gin parfait, served up in a kilner jar and topped with redcurrants and redcurrant jelly, with a few chunks of toasted Revel ciabatta to go with it. It was a generous helping, for sure – a theme we noticed throughout the evening. The parfait was smooth and rich, though I’m not sure how noticeable the gin was, but it certainly hit the spot, with the tart redcurrants doing exactly what they were supposed to do in balancing the dish.
One of our friends went for garlic mushrooms in parsley and cream sauce – another hefty portion with more of the great Revel bread alongside. He was pleased with his choice – a classic but well-executed and full of flavour.
Jamie – usually a creature of habit – went a bit off-piste and chose the ‘Marinating buffalo bocconcini’ – basically a small Mozzarella cheese soaked in herby olive oil, again served up in a kilner jar. It came with the classic Italian combination of sweet heritage cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. This could have been a disaster, but was quite the opposite and had a lovely Mediterranean feel to it.
The fourth member of our gang had the winner though, I think. Brixham Scallops with cauliflower puree, pedro ximenez dressing, courgette and peashoots. Pretty on the plate without being too fussy, the scallops were cooked just right and it was nice to see a change from the oh-so-overdone scallop, black pudding and apple combination that you see in so many places.
Rather buoyed by our starters, we moved on to the mains. For me, pan roasted lamb rump with thyme and garlic confit potato, the Tuning Fork’s home baked olives as a mousse (their words not mine), fennel puree, mangetout and jus. Another generous portion, it took us away from light holiday food into something a bit more classic.
The lamb was cooked right, still pink, and the thyme and garlic confit potato was a rich, garlicky treat. I have to say, I wasn’t convinced by the home-baked olives as a mouse and felt perhaps it was a step too far. The fennel puree, though delicious, again made me wonder if it was really necessary. Having said that – it’s great to see someone being ambitious in the kitchen and going for it, especially somewhere that could so easily rest on its laurels and rely on the relatively captive audience in the area.
One friend went for the Sambal cod – one of a few dishes on the menu with a slight Asian influence. Served with wombok and red cabbage salad with vietnamese ‘mint’ and Asian style pilaf rice, it was certainly a rainbow on the plate. I didn’t try it, but am assured it was pretty tasty.
Jamie, having stepped right out of his comfort zone with his starter, hurled himself straight back into his happy place with an Onley 10oz rib-eye. This monster of a hunk of meat came on its own board with home-made onion rings and a brandy green peppercorn sauce. That wasn’t it though – Mr M had a whole EXTRA plate piled high with homemade chips and a portion of salad. If we thought the other dishes were big, this one took it to a whole new level.
However, despite the comedy size of his meal, he was adamant that the steak was of excellent quality, as were the onion rings and fries while I dunked a chip into his sauce and found it to be as good a pepper sauce as any. His only criticism – just the slightly intimidating amount of food in front of him.
The fourth member of the group – she of scallop success – proved to have the winner of the mains too (in my view anyway). Despite being tempted by various fish dishes, Jackie went for Devonshire Free range duckling – a brined and confit leg and pan-fried breast, served with sweet potato dauphinoise, romanesco, caramelised onion, pickled fennel and raspberry salad with pomegranate molasses and nicoise dressing.
A long list of elements again, but this time they all worked well together. The duck, as you can see, was really quite pink (too much for some maybe, but Jackie said it was fine), while the sweet potato dauphinoise was an imaginative twist on a classic. The salad got the thumbs up too, especially with the addition of the raspberries.
I suppose we should have called it a day there, and our wise friends did. But when have you ever known Jamie and I to turn away from dessert. We opted to share ‘Kerry’s Halfa Chocolate Orange’ – a white and dark chocolate orange served with honeycomb parfait and orange segments. Far more than your average bought in restaurant dessert, this definitely smacked of a kitchen that’s keen to make its own stuff and not just do the easy stuff either. It looked good, tasted good and was the right balance of sweet and citrus to make it a good close to a pretty successful meal.
Before we knew it, we were done and it was time to go. The beauty being that for us, the Tuning Fork is just five minutes back home in a taxi. Given some people’s comments on the price, I had been waiting to see what my feeling would be when the bill arrived – overpriced or worth it? My instant reaction was the latter. Yes, the Tuning Fork isn’t cheap. If you want pub grub at a low price, then I’d suggest you go elsewhere.
But the ingredients are good quality, the chefs are trying to do something far beyond this – they’re trying to create an evening dining experience that is of restaurant standard, not pub fare. And for that, in my view anyway, you have to pay. On top of that, as I’ve said so many times before, going out to eat is about more than just the food – it’s about service, ambience, setting, choice, and the Tuning Fork is doing a pretty good job at that. And hey, if paying a few quid more means we get to keep a welcome addition to the somewhat paltry dining scene in our little town then I’m in.
We paid in full for our dinner at The Tuning Fork.