Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Wellington Arms, Baughurst

The Wellington Arms is not, in my opinion, a gastropub. Yes, I know it's number 33 on the Top 50 Gastropubs list, and is a building that looks quite a lot like a pub, and it has a pubby name. But a dealbreaker in the whole pub/not-a-pub definition, as far as I'm concerned, is whether or not you can turn up without a reservation, sit at the bar and have a pint of beer without committing to a full meal, and if you can't do that, that's not a pub, that's a restaurant.

However. Aside from that one crucial disqualifier, on most other measurable indices the Wellington Arms ticks all the boxes. The menu, for one, is absolutely solid gastropub territory, with perennial favourites like steak and fish and chips sitting beside seasonal delicacies like wood pigeon and rabbit terrine. It reminded me very strongly of the Parkers Arms menu, another exquisitely tasteful and accessible piece of menu work, and in fact despite this corner of the Hampshire/Berkshire border being somewhat more moneyed than Bowland (one couple turned up in a Tesla) the prices are just as reasonable, with starters around £8-£9 and mains largely under £20.

Of course it's one thing writing a pretty menu, quite another delivering on it. Fortunately, the kitchens at the Wellington have more than enough of a grasp of British pub aesthetic and French technique to make good on their promises. Potted crab was pretty much perfect, a teacup filled with spiced crab meat (white and brown) and plenty of butter, with a generous amount of the house sourdough to spread it on.

Westcombe cheddar soufflé was an absolute beauty, a cloud of salty, fluffy dairy that dissolved in the mouth like savoury candy floss. But even more impressive than the soufflé itself was a layer of thin discs of courgette underneath, soaked in a delicate cheese sauce, that added just enough salad to prevent all that dairy becoming overwhelming. It was a seriously good soufflé.

The beer batter on these courgette flowers had a good crunch and a pleasing hoppy flavour of its own, and stands as a good indicator that the Wellington Arms fish and chips would have had plenty to recommend it. Here, though, it was holding in a filling of ricotta and mozzarella, and made a very enjoyable vegetarian starter. I've seen more tempura-like, thinner batters on other courgette flower dishes, but I quite liked the continuity of using the same batter as the fish and chips. Because why not?

The problem with serving pies in 2018 you are now automatically pitched against the work of Calum Franklin of Holborn Dining Rooms, and Stosie Madi of the Parkers Arms, who in the last couple of years have redefined how good the humble pie can be, and brought quite dramatically higher expectations down on pies that until recently could have been considered above reproach. It's not that the Wellington Arms venison pot pie is bad, or even not worth the very reasonable £17.75 they're asking for it, it's just you can't imagine the Holborn Dining Rooms or Parkers Arms serving meat just the wrong side of dry, that stuck to the mouth, and in a rather thin, wine-y sauce that needed a bit more beefing up with stock.

Scallops wrapped in pancetta is another familiar gastropub play, and the Wellington are too confident and skillful an operation to serve anything less than a hugely enjoyable version of it. I suppose if you were determined to pick fault you could say that with a dish like this the kitchens are playing it safe somewhat, but then it's almost certainly only tragic saddos like me that could ever be "bored" with scallops wrapped in pancetta, as nobody else had an issue with them.

Perhaps a more reasonable criticism of the place is that despite a large and spectacular kitchen garden, the number of items marked "HG" (Home Grown) on the menu was limited to a few salad leaves and courgettes (plus flowers). Broad beans were apparently not ready yet, which is nobody's fault, but I spotted plenty of plump red strawberries in the garden which featured nowhere on the desserts menu, and things like Jersey Royals and other root vegetables, asparagus, tomatoes and peas were all bought in. Sincere apologies to the Wellington Arms if I'm completely trivialising the difficulties of running a functioning professional kitchen garden, but as one of those hopeless tragic saddos I mentioned earlier my first instinct when given a menu is to pick whatever the restaurant has been able to grow themselves, and on that front it was slim pickings.

But despite this, it was still hard not to be impressed by the sheer hospitality, warmth and professionalism of the Wellington Arms team. Desserts, solid if unspectacular versions of a treacle tart and Eton Mess (the latter using home grown rhubarb at least) would have been much harder to fault had the pacing of the evening and attentiveness of the staff been anything less than perfect the whole evening. And just look at that bill - without the £20 worth of jams and chutneys we took home with us this accomplished and enjoyable meal in charming surroundings came to under £50/head. By anyone's standards, this is a bargain.

So though not in the very top-tier of its ilk, there's still plenty to recommend at the Wellington, and you'd have to be very unlucky indeed to not to come away from a meal here thinking you'd got far more than your money's worth. And it's worth pointing out that the Top 50 Gastropub list that I have been working my way through over the last couple of years, pedantic definition of "gastropub" aside, is yet to really offer up a significant dud. Picking an entry and planning a day or two based around a meal there is a pretty-much-guaranteed way of having a lovely country gastro-break. So, where next?



Helen Graves said...


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