With Birmingham and London both easy train journeys from Rugby, it’s a bit too easy to overlook some of the great places in the Midlands countryside. So last week, we took the trouble of venturing out into the wilds of Warwickshire to try a new place for once.
The King’s Arms in Knowle at first appears to be just a rather nice looking country pub. But on closer inspection of both the venue and the menu, you realise it’s a little bit more. The interior has been well thought out, with homely decor, a well-appointed bar area, and a nicely decked out restaurant. But I imagine it’s the summer that’s the real winner, with a huge terrace and beer garden backing onto the canal. It was too cold for us on an early May evening, but it would make for a great lunch or dinner place on a balmy summer evening (if we ever get any!).
There are rooms, too, upstairs, if you fancy staying over – certainly something we’d consider for a nice little break away. Interior wise, there’s one thing I have to say. I usually steer clear of commenting about toilets, but I was struck that such clean, well-looked after loos could simultaneously be without either bin or full-length mirror. Kind of a necessity in a ladies toilet, especially given the niceness of the pub. I hate to nitpick, but when train cancellations have forced you to make a cross-Midlands dash straight to dinner, you kinda want a mirror to check yourself out in, and a bin to chuck your tissues in after you’ve touched up your makeup. It’s no deal-breaker, obviously, but an easy thing to rectify.
Anyway, onto the food. We were shown to a nice little table in the corner, with views out on to the terrace, and allowed to peruse the new summer menu. And a great-looking menu it is too. From its tempting sharing platters to the starters and mains, the King’s Arms has done a good job of combining some pub-restaurant classics with a bit more of a high end feel. There is the focus on in-season and British produce that we all want to see these days, along with some imaginative styles and descriptions that make it hard to narrow down what to choose.
Our waiter was great, with the patience of a saint, as we umm’d and aah’d over the menu while chomping through some breadsticks and vegetable crisps. He dealt with my request for help with the magnanimity you’d expect of a member of staff, whilst not being afraid to show a bit of personality and stick his neck out by making a recommendation. He even took the unusual step of offering to take our starter choices and leaving us with the menu to pore over for a bit longer. An untraditional step, but actually exactly what we wanted, and a move that I thought showed a real understanding of what customer service really is – catering to your customer’s needs, no matter how off the wall they might be.
For starter, I chose a Crayfish and Crab Pot, described as bound in Devon crab mayonnaise and chives, with toasted suprema bocata bread. I’m sorry to say, I was a bit disappointed. Perhaps I was expecting too much, because Mr M and our friends said it was lovely, but I found it slightly lacking in flavour. It was all a teeny bit watery and insipid, and I struggled to taste the crab, while melted butter poured on top then chilled was a bit too thick and proved to be quite a tough obstacle to fight through to get to the fish underneath.
The others fared far better, and I suffered some hardcore food envy (luckily this was remedied with the mains). Mr M went for Somerset Brie, a breaded wedge of cheese deep fried in a pumpkin seed crumb, served with apricot and cumin chutney. As most things seemed to at the King’s Arms, this was one step beyond the average deep-fried breaded cheese. The brie was tasty, not just a flavourless lump of goo, and had been cooked just right, crispy on the outside and oozy in the middle. But it was the chutney that was the winner. A sweet and fruity, yet spicy accompaniment that cut through the creaminess of the cheese and balanced the starter perfectly.
Another great choice was our friend’s warm Melusine goat’s cheese crottin. The delicate filo parcel presented the similar winning combo of crispy case and melted cheese inside. It came served with an impressive and pretty beetroot carpaccio as well as borage honey, a combination of sweet yet tangy tastes, and the perfect remedy to a mouthful of rich cheese.
The fourth starter on the table was Beech mushrooms, served in a white wine and black garlic velouté, with free range poached egg and a pistou brioche. Like all the starters, this was presented perfectly, with the brioche a pretty looking bun with a seam of pistou – a Provençal cold sauce made from cloves of garlic, fresh basil, and olive oil – spiralling through it. The velouté was runnier than our friend was expecting, but I found it tasty, a nice winey, garlicky mess filled with mushrooms. As a brief aside, she could probably have done with a spoon to get the sauce up.
Having piqued our curiosity and inspired our confidence with some pretty high standard starters, we finally made our minds up on some main courses. Mr M went for (do I even need to tell you at this stage? Surely you know him by now) the Casterbridge 28-day aged ribeye steak. It came blanketed by a pile of onion rings. Not your average pub onion rings, pulled out of the freezer and chucked in the fryer, but thin slices of real onion coated in a light, delicate batter. He had some nicely-cooked chunky fries and a rocket salad, and opted to try a bearnaise sauce which came in its own tiny saucepan. The steak was good quality, full of flavour, and cooked perfectly for him (still mooing, basically).
Our friends went for some other British classics that the King’s Arms’ menu managed to make sound far more appealing than many other establishments do, with accompaniments, flavour combinations and descriptions making dishes we’d usually ignore leap off the page for attention. One went for the four bone English rack of lamb, which came with saffron Parmentier potatoes, wilted spinach, courgette, butternut squash purée, and a jus. The meat was perfectly cooked, pink, and was like cutting butter apparently, while the vegetables were well cooked, and the jus tasty. It was a generous portion too, four decently sized cutlets.
The other couldn’t resist the West Country beef burger, choosing toppings of flat mushroom and hand-pulled pork, which helpfully came in separate bowls on her request. I’m not sure she’d have managed the hefty burger, which came with its brioche bun skewered to keep it together, with all the toppings on board as well as the lettuce and tomato it comes with. The burger was meaty, juice, tasty, all the things a burger should be. The pulled pork was a real winner too, sweet and rich in barbecue sauce, and practically melt in the mouth (I can testify to this, since I snaffled quite a lot of it!)
I – yes I’m saving the best for last – opted for the British wild venison steak. This was pretty awesome, I have to say. Served on a black slate, it looked fab for starters, the pink of the venison shining out like a tempting, gamey treat. It came with well cooked tenderstem broccoli, soft yet still with a bite to it, and a fondant potato. But it was the apricot and cumin roasted plum and the sauce that clinched its victory in the main course stakes. The fruit was sweet, spicy and caramelised, while the salted caramel and chocolate jus was perfect for venison, sweet yet slightly bitter too.
Tempted by the array of side dishes, we also shared a bowl of beetroot and pineapple glazed with lemongrass and ginger dressing and spiced seeds. While completely unnecessary given how much we had already eaten, this was well worth it. I love roasted beetroot anyway, but the lemongrass and ginger dressing added a whole new dimension, bringing an oriental addition to quite a British meal.
Buoyed by our successful main courses, we just couldn’t stop ourselves, and moved onto dessert. Thankfully, the drama of making a decision was saved by the sharing platter, a calorie-laden selection of sweets to tempt even the fullest of diners. There was a moist, crumbley chocolate cookie ice-cream sandwich, full of creamy vanilla ice-cream. The chocolate parfait was a smooth, decadent contrast, with the bitter chocolate a welcome break from its sugary neighbour of the cookie. A slice of passion fruit tart looked like any other tart, but its custard was packed with intense passionfruit flavours that made the first mouthful a real ‘wow’ moment. But it was the creme brûlée that stole the show. Perfectly-executed custard, smooth and full of vanilla, with the sugar crust just the right thickness and flambeed perfectly to make it crunchy and slightly bitter, yet not burnt. I’m often quite happy to eschew desserts if I’ve already had a starter, but this platter is something a bit special and I’m not sure I could resist if I went back to the King’s Arms.
Full to the brim, but over-excited by such a good evening, we finished our night off with a cheeseboard. The combination of British cheeses – Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Collier’s cheddar, and Somerset Brie – came with a small bowl of balsamic chutney, celery sticks, grapes and crackers. The cheese was, as to be expected, of good quality, and the perfect full stop to a really rather good meal.
We left at midnight, the last diners there, which I reckon is a pretty clear sign of a good evening having been had. Not only is the food at the King’s Arms pretty impressive, but they’ve created a lovely atmosphere that I imagine means you can relax into whatever occasion you’re there for, whether it’s a quiet impromptu meal, a Friday night out with friends, or something a bit more special. The prices aren’t unreasonable either, in my view, especially for food that is pretty darn good, and a cut above your average pub. With a menu as diverse as theirs and having struggled to make a choice, it’s quite nice to know there’s plenty of time to go back for the ones that go away. When summer finally arrives, I know where I’m heading to try out that garden and terrace.
Have you found any hidden gems in the countryside near you? I reckon this summer’s going to be all about country pubs, so would love to hear some suggestions. Let me know in the comments.
The King’s Arms contributed £100 towards the total bill but the rest was paid for by our good selves. All opinions and views, as ever, are mine and completely honest