There are times as a blogger when you wonder if it’s all a bit too good to be true and any minute someone’s going to jump out and scream: “Ha, joke’s on you”. Well, I do anyway. And as we drove around pitch black roads, across gated fields, and through darkened villages, following the direction to the Hollybush in Priors Marston, I definitely wondered if that moment was finally going to come.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the case on this occasion. Funnily enough, Priors Marston isn’t even that far from Rugby, but we somehow felt like we travelled a long old way until we entered the village and spotted the handy little sign pointing us into its depths and to the Hollybush.
The Hollybush is exactly how you’d expect, or at least hope, a country pub to be. Cosy, welcoming, and kind of olde-worldy. Yet it’s got the bonus of having a bit of a city vibe in some ways, with a stonkingly large gin selection and a food menu that’s a bit more than your average burger and chips.
I’m told that since I visited back in September (yes, I know, it’s taken me FAR too long to tell you about it) there’s been a few changes in the kitchen, including a new head chef. But apparently the menu is quite similar, so if you go you should expect a similar style and standard.
It’s not an enormous menu at the Hollybush, which I always think is kind of a good sign, as you’ve got a chef concentrating on a few decent dishes rather than an encyclopaedic list that means nothing is ever quite honed and perfected. There was an additional blackboard of some pretty tempting dishes so plenty to choose.
I started with one of those specials – scallops with black pudding and textures of apple. See what I mean? It’s not often you see a phrase like ‘textures of apple’ in a country pub.
Using language like that can be a bit of a double-edged sword, in my view. If you’re going to start calling things ‘textures of’ then you’re trying to say something about what you’re doing, so you blimin well best hope you can execute it to the level that it suggests you’re aiming for. I’m happy to say, this is exactly what happened with this one.
It didn’t just look great, but tasted good too. We all know that scallops and black pudding are a winning combination, but cooking them well isn’t quite so easy. On this plate, the scallops were perfectly cooked, tender without being raw and not overdone to the point of rubber. They also had the roe left on which I know some people don’t like, but I’m a fan of.
The black pudding was great quality and nice and crispy on the outside. And the ‘textures’ of apple – in the form of a puree under the scallops and a crisp, tart, sphere alongside – brought the citrus tartness to balance out the dish.
Mr M had gone for the Gambas al Ajillo off the menu – described as ‘king prawns in an Andalusian chilli, garlic and white wine sauce served with bread’. I’ve got to say, from that description we both expect some large tiger prawns in a thick sauce that he could get down and dirty with and pull apart then mop up the sauce with his bread.
Instead, he got some pre-shelled prawns in what at first looked to be a bit of an insipid soup-like sauce. What this picture doesn’t let you experience is the ferocious kick that sauce contained. Now, Mr M likes his chilli but even he was left with wide eyes after trying a bit of this bad boy.
To be honest, it was a bit too much chilli for my liking and I’d imagine would have been too much for a lot of people, but Jamie really enjoyed them and said that there was good flavour as well as heat.
For main course, I was tempted back to the blackboard by the 8oz fillet of Oxfordshire Beef with sauteed potatoes, seasonal veg and a bone marrow jus. At £27.95 it’s a bit of a treat but I very rarely have fillet of beef so thought I’d go for it.
This picture doesn’t really do this dish justice. The fillet was great – good quality and cooked right, and I’m a big fan of simple, seasonal greens. But it was the jus that was a winner. The depth of flavour was absolutely epic – rich, meaty and concentrated with that buttery, beefy bone marrow flavour.
So often these days a ‘jus’ is actually a bit of stock that’s been whizzed around a deglazed pan so it was so refreshing to have a jus that’s actually been reduced for the hours and hours it takes to get the flavour you expect.
Jamie would have chosen the beef fillet but I beat him to it so he opted for the ‘Bloody Big 12oz Oxfordshire Rib Eye Steak’, which came with fries, green peppercorn sauce and confit tomatoes and mushrooms. Again, at £22.50, it’s not dirt cheap but for a steak that size and of that quality I don’t think it’s all that bad.
In fact, he said it was up there with some of the better steaks he’d had. Good quality, cooked well. But again, it was the sauce that really impressed him. It turns out they’d used the same jus that had knocked my socks off as a base which made it far better than your average packet peppercorn sauce.
For dessert we decided just to share, and it was a good job we did as this chocolate fondant with chocolate soil and candied orange was plenty for two. As yet another schoolgirl error (another bit of evidence towards my imagined imminent approach of someone popping up and sacking me as a blogger), I forgot to write down exactly what it was.
I do, however, definitely remember that the fondant was done right – with the gooey middle that would make Gregg Wallace jump up and down with excitement – while the biscuity soil added a lovely crunch and the orange making for that classic but winning combination of flavours that has made Terry (he of chocolate oranges) a billionaire.
Overall, we were impressed with the Hollybush. It’s one of those places that makes you wish you lived in a village and had a cosy ‘local’ that just happened to do good food that’s more than gammon and egg or steak and kidney pie.
As mentioned, I’m told they’ve had a few changes in kitchen personnel and head chef is now Adrian Searing, who’s worked in the restaurant industry for more than three decades, including eight years in New York, and has also been behind a number of high-profile eateries in London.
Whether this translates well to little old Priors Marston, we’ll have to see, but I for one think that there’s plenty of us food-lovers out in ‘the sticks’ that like to see good quality food and are willing to pay a few extra quid for it. It’s just a case of finding the balance between quality and affordability for those of us who aren’t on a London salary. But done right, they could be on to a winner.
We were invited to dine at The Hollybush free of charge to try their food offering. We visited in September and, as mentioned, kitchen staff have changed since then so this review is simply me saying what I found when I went.
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