[Disclosure: We paid in full at the Hare and Hounds. They didn’t know I was a blogger]
Google Maps is useful for all sorts of things. Planning journeys. Basic geography. But most importantly, finding somewhere to eat that’s round the corner when you’re badly organised and suddenly hungry.
Of course, the joy of Google is that as well as finding a place, you can check the reviews, see the ‘rating’ and maybe even see pictures of the venue, food and whatever else appears in this ‘let me show you every cough and spit of my life and make sure it’s available online’ life that is 2022.
Or, what you can do is literally pick the place that is the shortest distance to travel. Yes, it’s a bit like stacking everything on red or black. But that feeling of jeopardy is what makes it an even sweeter moment when you realise you’ve accidentally hit the jackpot.
Yes, you know what’s coming. My jackpot. Just off the A34 near Newbury in the form of the Hare & Hounds. A deceptive behemoth of a place that might appear like a renovated 17th century Georgian coaching inn, but inside hides a huge, vaulted-ceiling’d dining room, cosy bar area with one of those wine dispenser thingies as well as all the traditional drinks you want in a proper pub.
And that’s before we even get to the modern, chic terrace and the array of hotel rooms, including several in buildings across the car park and some rather lovely suites.
We quickly learn that our visit is just eight or nine months into its new lease of life after an extensive renovation. There’s an equestrian, country theme to the decor, reflecting its history as a coaching inn. It’s comfortable, with a warm welcome from staff who seem to range in experience but not in enthusiasm.
There are many menus. A fixed price lunch, a la carte, specials. The a la carte itself is extensive – with small plates, starters, mains, as well as meat cooked on the robata grill and burgers. If we’d been on a different day we might have been presented with Saturday brunch or Sunday lunch.
It’s a fair bit to take in, but the problem isn’t the number of menus, it’s the number of dishes on the menu that sound great. Including a selection of side dishes that sound good enough to make you consider ignoring the mains for a second. Only a second though, because they also sound too good to miss.
We settle on lobster arancini from the small plates section to start. It’s smaller than classic arancini in size, but not in flavour. It might seem like simple balls of risotto, but it’s an exercise in balance. Sweet lobster with a gentle flicker of heat, counterbalanced by citrus-laced puree underneath. Soft, yielding risotto, encased by fresh, golden crunchy crumb.
Pork belly is a carefully put together plate. Simple but big on flavour. A slightly chewy, well-rendered blanket of fat gives way to tender meat that yields with the touch of a fork.
There’s more evidence of the chef’s understanding of balance. The richness of the meat is counteracted by pak choi that’s fresh and crunchy – a joyful contrast to the version offered up at Limehouse in Lulworth the night before.
Wasabi mash is made with proper wasabi, giving it a balanced warmth rather than a crude thwack, and a miso sauce brings an earthy umami note that contrasts with a slightly sweet black sesame puree. It’s a dish that brings Asian flavours to what could have been a simple plate of meat, potatoes and veg and it works.
The Fish pie comes with a warning that it’s huge, but mum isn’t put off. And thank goodness. It’s spectacular. A cast iron skillet topped with golden brown Duchess potatoes that hide a steaming hot, fish-laden loveliness underneath.
There are chunks of white fish, meaty shellfish, but it’s the lobster and Cornish crab cream sauce that I’d happily bathe in. St Ewe’s egg inside still has an oozy yolk, and there’s a delicate warmth to the whole dish that elevates it far beyond the stodgy nondescript white sauce and mash combinations so many people try to pass off as fish pie.
It’s so big mum manages about a quarter, and that’s with help from me, but her leftovers are packaged up for later without anyone batting an eyelid. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t offer to share it with me but carefully tucks it away. I don’t blame her to be honest.
We finish with classic crumble. But again, there’s nothing bogstandard about it. The fruit is cooked just right so it has shape and bite. The crumble is buttery and crunchy. But it’s the custard that gets us. Infused with bay leaf, it’s sublte but brilliant, with all the vanilla notes you’d expect and an added autumnal feel. There is none left of this, you can be assured.
Before we leave we’re given a tour of the recently-refurbished rooms. There are dog-friendly ones, the superior versions with rolltop baths and all that jazz. It’s all done brilliantly, and good to know there’s somewhere to stay when we return. Which we will. But as tempting as lovely rooms, cocktails and a pretty terrace are, there’s one thing that will be lulling me back down the A34 to the Hare & Hounds. And that’s the food.
[Disclosure: We paid in full at the Hare & Hounds. They didn’t know I was a blogger]