[Disclosure: We paid in full for our meal from The Butchers Social]
When The Butchers Social in Henley-in-Arden closed last year, I’m sure wasn’t the only one who kicked themselves for not getting over there enough. Jamie and I had been once, gnawing on their famous chicken wings, realising that in fact they are about far more than those chicken wings and do a whole range of great food with a well-measured, relaxed, fun yet classy vibe. We vowed to go again, then suddenly we heard that they’d be closing their doors in Henley for good.
The sadness didn’t last too long, because anyone who has met Mike Bullard should have known he wouldn’t be hanging up his apron. During the various lockdowns Mike moved his business online, doing hampers and joining others in providing fabulous meals for us to finish off at home.
It’s one of those that I’m here to tell you about in this post but I’m also here with good news. The Butchers Social is back – in a brand new incarnation at The Forest Hotel in Dorridge, Solihull, and I’ve already heard brilliant things. It’s been added to the neverending list of places to get to now we’re allowed, but in the meantime, here’s a long overdue rundown of the Valentine’s feast Jamie and I treated ourselves to earlier this year.
The point of the post is simple. If this is the kind of stuff Mike and his team can turn out via packets, boxes and a journey across the Midlands, just imagine how good it can be when they’re prepping it all in a kitchen just feet from you and serving it up to you in a restaurant.
Valentine’s was always going to be a tough call. After months of finish-at-home meals, we suffered a similar malaise to lots of other people. Beef Wellingtons and chocolate fondants with the minimum of preparation and easiest of execution were great in the initial glow of lockdown excitement, but fast forward a few months, as chefs faced a challenge on exactly how many dishes they could come up with that could be prepared in advance and didn’t run the risk of us amateurs spoiling them and the shine dulled slightly.
I trawled menus like a bored bloke on Tinder, swiping past identikit menus that promised all the romance yet none of the taste, then stumbled on The Butchers Social’s own version of Valentine’s. No Wellington in sight. Instead a six-course feast combining classics with a few little curve balls, yet all eminently doable without faff and fuss.
Forget bread and olives to start with. It’s all about flat bread dunked in roast hummus then double-dunked in dukkha. Simple, tasty, a bit of liquorice courtesy of caraway in the bread and the fennel in the dukkha, which also added an aromatic warmth plus the crunchy texture contrast to the smooth hummus.
Next up was another departure from a classic – perhaps often pedestrian – starter. The smoothest of chicken liver parfaits on toast, but with the ingenious addition of a cherry and duck fat granola. Yes, you read that right. Sweet cherries instead of a compote, dried and mixed with oats and nuts laced with rich duck fat. All the right flavours, all the right textures, and far more memorable than a slab of pate popped on top of a bit of bread.
Course three was one of my favourites. A feta and black truffle terrine served simply with a splash of fragrant lovage oil and sprinkled with an ever-so-slightly sweet pumpernickel crumb. Simple in so many ways, from the serving to the flavours, yet unlike anything we’ve ever had before.
Main course was the impressive-sounding dishes that are almost obligatory on a Valentine’s menu. Lobster thermidor and braised ossobucco. A brick of potato rosti, artichoke puree and a Bordelaise sauce. Each element was brilliantly cooked, but after the light delights of the terrine and the chicken liver parfait, they just somehow didn’t quite gel together as well as the previous courses had.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d probably still choose these over yet another Wellington after months of having them, but for me I’d probably go for one or the other – not both on the same plate where they seemed to vie for attention, competing rather than cooperating when it came to getting your tastebuds attention.
If the main was a departure from the style of the previous courses, the dessert transported us right back to their superlative simplicity. A buttery pastry case housing the silkiest, most indulgent of caramel chocolate cremeux, adorned only with a smattering of almond crumble and a dollop of salted almond clotted cream that I could quite happily coat myself in and die a happy lady.
The epitome of a great dessert, in which the sum of its parts is somehow greater than the individual elements, guaranteeing that every spoonful has to include all of them until you’re left, bereft, with an empty plate.
The final course was another classic. Shorocks Bomber Cheese, celery, date puree and pickled walnuts. And no, there’s no picture here because they were eaten the next day as a snack. A wise move given that nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to live up to that tart.
It was a triumph, of course it was. Mike somehow managed to take everything there is to love about the Butchers Social – the confidence to keep it simple, a love of ingredients and flavour combinations, and yet create something that is somehow completely different from what we’ve had when we’ve dined in a more conventional setting.
Either way, I’m here to tell you that if you’re contemplating trying The Butchers Social at its new home, then you probably should. Because if this is what Mike and his team can produce in the middle of a global pandemic and entrust to people like me to get right in their own home, then imagine what he can turn out in a brand new place that he can call home.
[Disclosure: We paid in full for our at-home meal from The Butchers Social]