[Disclosure: We paid in full at The Boat Inn]
Remember when children’s story books used to include the ‘moral of the story’ at the ending, just in case you missed the point of it? There are several ‘morals to the story’ of the tale I’m about to tell you so I’ll get them out of the way at the start, as I’m sure you’d much rather see the food.
The first is, never judge a book by its cover. Because appearances can be deceiving, and you can never really tell the full story about somewhere until you’ve been inside, tasted their food, and experienced what they do. The second lesson is never assume somewhere can’t change. What may appear to be the same pub that you’ve passed a thousand times could well have undergone some kind of marvellous transformation without you realising.
The third lesson is that if several people rave about a place, it’s usually worth trying. As much as I love seeking out places that people might not have tried before, when the same place keeps cropping up from several people, all whose opinion I trust, it’s usually for good reason.
And so to The Boat Inn at Birdingbury Wharf on the road between Rugby and Southam. I’ve driven past it time and time again, thinking it looks like an alright pub with a nice garden and a canalside setting. I hadn’t heard much about it then recently I noticed its name cropping up repeatedly and always with rave reviews. So without further ado, I followed my own advice from these first few paragraphs and got myself down there post-haste.
It still looks like a pub, albeit a rather nice pub, but don’t be fooled. When it comes to the food, the mentality of those behind The Boat has left pub grub far behind. We visited during the ‘outdoor dining’ only period and were graced with good weather for a long, lazy lunch by the canalside.
Like many places, The Boat has invested a lot of time and effort into both its outside space as well as the cosy but classy interior so there’s plenty of covered space to take advantage of its setting and enjoy an al fresco meal if you choose, as well as venturing inside where you’ll enjoy company from the pub dogs while you shelter from any inclement weather we might still be treated to.
The food. One quick look at the menu and you’ll see that these guys mean business. I’m told they did once do things like bangers and mash but the chef (who I hear is self-taught) decided that he wanted to be a bit more ambitious. It’s a decision that’s paid off in my book, with dishes that excite and appeal without losing sight of flavours that work.
It’s also one of those menus that inspires huge FOMO before you’ve even ordered as you struggle to choose what to have then convince yourself that somebody else might choose one of the dishes you didn’t pick and leave you forever full of regret.
For me a starter of scallops perched on top of bruschetta, a slice of salami adorned with pesto and a fresh, light dressing. Fresh tasting, fresh looking and altogether delightful.
My friend’s beef carpaccio was a simple pleasure, allowed to shine without too much messing, and a fat fish cake topped with poached egg and hollandaise was heavy on the fish rather than being bulked out with potato with plenty of taste and a brilliantly executed sauce full of all the silky butteriness it should have and a slight hint of acidity to balance things out.
Main courses were as difficult a decision, but buoyed by my good choice on the starting act I took the plunge and went for the mango chicken ‘power salad’. A colourful bowl of food inspired more by the poke bowls and buddha bowls we see a lot of these days than the wilted, apologetic excuses for salad you sometimes get in pubs.
Packed with sweet, sticky chicken, pickled carrots, perfectly-cooked eggs, avocado, leaves and a piquant soy, honey and chilli dressing. One of those moments that reminds you that no, salad really doesn’t have to be some kind of second-class option when you have one in the right place.
Monkfish wrapped in prosciutto ham was an imposing mountain of food, shaped into a volcano-shaped pile with the help of a punchy harissa risotto and a moat of sauce that to me was slightly reminiscent of romesco. A chicken ballotine stuffed with mozzarella, pesto, basil and sun-dried tomato was a more delicate plate of food, offering up more of the same pesto that had come with my starter.
For Jamie, a squid ink paella that he was hoping would be a classic pan of rice studded with seafood, but was more of a deconstructed version, lighter and more delicate, and probably more appealing to most people looking for something slightly less OTT for a casual lunch in the Warwickshire countryside.
If the testament to a good place is whether the ambition runs through it’s whole menu or disappears off at the edges, then the sides will give you a bit of a clue as to how seriously these guys take what they’re doing. Forget ‘steamed veg’, or ‘fries’ – these are sides done properly.
Asparagus with parmesan shavings, a smoked Applewood mac and cheese that was oozy inside and crisp on top, tenderstem with more of the honey, chilli and soy that had impressed on my salad, and some fries just in case we hadn’t ordered enough.
We planned to order one dessert, but the same problem of food FOMO reared its ugly head and saw us all order a pud to make sure we could try as many as possible. Because when you open a sweet menu and there isn’t an apple pie and custard in sight. Desserts might be where The Boat does itself most proud, unashamedly pulling out all the stops to create the kind of dishes that you look at, marvel at, tell people about and think about long after.
Like that clique of teenage girls at school, they were all pretty but in their own, very different way. My favourite was the raspberry, pistachio and matcha tiramisu. Classic in its beauty, yet somehow different. Fruity and sweet, yet with a vegetal hint from the matcha that was cleverly kept subtle enough to be interesting without being invasive. A fresh, light, sweet delight.
Then there was the showy one. A white chocolate sphere, shaped and coloured to impersonate an apple, and filled with white chocolate mascarpone mousse and a sweet, sticky caramel apple centre. A tightrope walk of potential style over substance, yet it hit the mark in flavour just as much as it did in aesthetics.
‘Death by Sugar’ sounded more intimidating that she actually was – a bit like the ring-leader at school who turned out not to be quite as bad as she seemed when you first clapped eyes on her. Manageable bites of everyone’s favourite sweet treats, including squares of simple yet impressive cheesecake, single spoonfuls of creme brulee, a chocolate macaron and chunky cubes of rocky road. Simple and a clear winner for those who like a sugar fix.
Last up, a mango and cardamom pannacotta. Good wobble, without turning into a gelatinous disaster, with fresh chunks of mango and a bit of heat from a chilli sesame snap. It’s all there – flavour, colour, different textures and a bucketload of ambition and care.
I suppose that really sums up The Boat. Having seen what they do first-hand, it’s clear that they care. This place isn’t just somewhere to churn out food and pull pints – it’s aiming to be more than that and very much achieving it. Long may it last.