For some reason, if you choose to write about food some people call you (and think you call yourself) a ‘critic’. I’m not a critic – I think to be some kind of critic you probably need a modicum of skill in the particular area you’re critiquing, and when it comes to cooking I have less than that.
However, I do know some stuff about food, mainly because I’ve eaten a lot. And that in turn means I know a little bit about cooking because it’s what’s responsible for how that food turns out. Like the fact you should let meat rest once it’s cooked, otherwise you end up with a plate of bloody juice that isn’t nice to look at. Or that you shouldn’t boil proper custard else it splits and has the texture in your mouth like a regrettable moment from your past (I’m saying no more than that).
I also know that most people are too shy with seasoning. I probably am too when I cook, which is why the food I serve up is never quite as nice as that of my husband or my brother who are both big on seasoning. Waving the salt and pepper over a dish isn’t enough, it seems. You need to get that stuff into a dish with the largesse we’d associate with Boris or Donald, not the restraint of Her Majesty or Theresa.
Yet somehow, so many people shy away from seasoning. Maybe I’ve just killed my tastebuds with too much booze and spicy food, but it seems that so many people working in kitchens are a bit scared of being generous when it comes to salt and pepper, rendering their food a somehow less shiny version of what it could be when it comes to taste.
Not so at the Rose Inn in Willoughby. And yes, simple seasoning doesn’t make a place but when you combine that with a simple but well executed menu, a cosy setting and wonderfully friendly owners, you find you’ve stumbled onto a winner.
I have to credit Jamie with the discovery of this pub in Willoughby just outside Rugby. For months he’s been banging on about doing a dog walk from our home in town to the village but we’ve struggled to find time so instead made it our first outing of the New Year. Just 10 minutes in the car, it’s about an hour and 45 minutes’ walk so just right to leave mid-morning and get there for lunch.
Tucked in the middle of the village, it’s an old building with a more formal restaurant area plus a dog-friendly area on the other side of the pub near a lovely log burner – perfect to warm up after a cold walk.
The menu is pub grub with a few more ambitious dishes than those you’d usually see in a country boozer. And no, I don’t have any problem with simple pub food at all, providing it’s done well (which it is here, as you’ll see).
Starters include pan-seared scallops, soup, sizzling tiger prawns and a rather tempting satay chicken which I would have had if I hadn’t been trying to be restrained. Instead we moved straight to mains which again provided a mixed choice from the standard fare of burger, steak and pie to duck breast with Chinese Five spice, plum sauce and dauphinoise potatoes and tarka dhal with spinach, sweet potato and lentils.
I went for chicken supreme – something I’m often tempted by but equally often disappointed. For some reason chicken supreme has become a synonym for bland, creamy nothingness in so many places and what should be a classic dish of moist chicken with silky, light yet comforting creamy sauce is turned into a plate of beige reminiscent of school dinners or hospital food.
Not here. It may be beige in appearance but that’s where the comparison ends. Nicely-cooked chicken, a creamy sauce packed with mushroom and most importantly, a decent amount of seasoning.
I swapped the potatoes for veg in an attempt to be healthy, not realising that ten minutes later I’d render that pointless after spotting someone else’s doorstep of tiramisu and enjoyed what is undoubtedly one of the more simple – and enjoyable – pub meals I’ve had in recent months.
Jamie went for steak (how many times have I written that phrase on this blog now?) and was impressed by the quality of the meat. We didn’t manage to ask where it was from but I’m hoping it was from Onley Farm just down the road.
Either way, again it was properly seasoned – something so often lacking from steak in kitchens around the country. Served up with chunky chips and hiding mushrooms underneath, it was pretty much his perfect lunch.
As I mentioned, I’d planned to try and stay ‘healthy’ – swerving alcohol as well as potatoes – only to have that come to an end rather abruptly when I saw a slab of ‘Gilli P’s Tiramisu’ being delivered to a nearby table.
I’m partial to Tiramisu but often avoid it after being disappointed so many times by a watery, insipid mess served up by people who seem not to understand that its sexiness is about more than mixing coffee and cream and biscuit. It’s about flavours working in harmony, alongside appearance that catches your eye and a texture that makes you close your eyes and enjoy every second.
Having spotted the slice for my neighbour, I had a feeling it might do just this. Maybe something to do with the way it held its shape rather than spreading out over the plate like The Blob, or maybe the slightly sexual sounds coming from the table as the diner tried it. Either way, I was right.
It turns out landlady ‘Gilli P’ makes it herself to her own recipe, soaking sponge in coffee liqueur then layering with mascarpone, chocolate and cream. No, I’m not saying she makes it exactly how the Italians do. I don’t really care. All I care about is that it’s bloody lovely – the right balance of sweet and slightly bitter, the right amount of alcohol, and the right level of ‘wetness’ (for want of a better word) that makes it hit the spot in texture, flavour and appearance.
In fact, it was so good I asked whether they would allow me to order this to take away in future – only to be told that I am far from the first person to make this request. So it’s not just me, it’s clearly good.
While I luxuriated in my fall from diet grace, Jamie tackled a selection of cheeses washed down with a nice glass of red before we paid up and headed home down the canal, me still smiling at that tiramisu and him basking in the fact that it was all his idea.
I won’t go on and on and on (as I usually do). The Rose Inn is a great little find. The food is pub grub and for me is exactly what good pub food should be – simple but done well.
As trite as this may sound, it’s one of those places that makes you feel like the people in the kitchen care about you as a guest in their pub (I’m fairly sure Gilli and her fellow chef responsible for our food are actually also landlord and landlady – though I could be wrong) and in turn care about what they feed you.
Add to this a cosy setting and super friendly staff and you have the perfect destination for a lunch or evening meal. I can see it becoming a bit of a 2020 haunt for us – even if it’s just for decently-seasoned food and that tiramisu.
We paid in full at The Rose Inn. They didn’t know I was a blogger.