The Bradley Hare, Church Street, Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire BA12 7HW (01985 801018). Starters £6.50-£10, mains £13.50-£23, desserts £7.50, wines from £20
If you wanted a single plate of food to symbolise the current state of the gussied-up country pub, you could do far worse than study my main course at what is now the Bradley Hare in the village of Maiden Bradley, a few miles outside Warminster in Wiltshire. It is steak and chips. Except, of course, it isn’t steak and chips; or at least not just steak and chips. The meat is impeccable, in keeping with the noisy commitment here to quality ingredients. They don’t just have a butcher. They also have a game dealer. They say they are against waste and very much for community involvement, so they have a barter arrangement with the local allotment society, allowing them to commission certain vegetables and “botanicals” for the bar. The Bradley Hare has the kind of bar that needs botanicals. I suspect it didn’t when it was the somewhat less titivated Somerset Arms.
As to that steak, it arrives pre-sliced, so it’s flashing the pink. It’s atop a bed of rocket and sliced cherry tomatoes. That in turn is on a sturdy raft of sourdough, smeared thickly with romesco, the glorious Catalan condiment of blitzed almonds, peppers, bread, garlic and olive oil that makes almost anything it touches so very much better. A few fried onions are sprinkled across the top because they always help. It’s a serious looker and, more importantly, a joy to eat. The chips are thin and hot and crisp and occasionally skin-on.
There will be one constituency that now wants to shout: “See! This is everything that’s wrong with modern, fancy, food culture which won’t leave things well alone. What’s wrong with plain old steak and chips?” To which, in this dysfunctional argument I’m now having with the debating partner in my head, I would reply: “Nothing. But this can be better if it’s done well.” Here, it really is done very well indeed.
I’m acknowledging that the Bradley Hare won’t be for everyone, that the pub traditionalists might well find it profoundly irritating. It is worth knowing that a lot of those involved come from the Soho House international members club group. The general manager, Ben Jones, was previously the restaurant manager at Babington House, the Soho House group’s country retreat. A co-director is James Thurstan Waterworth, which sounds like the name of one of those valiant souls who sacrificed themselves during Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. He’s the one-time European design director of Soho House. If you’ve never heard of Soho House, the mere fact they need a European design director tells you everything you need to know.
It is, in short, a glossy relaunch of a country pub, aimed at people who know that the different shades of paint on the walls have fancy names; that the weave of the rugs, and the saris refashioned as throws, matter; that sofas must be squelchy but not too squelchy. Obviously, I am very happy here, for traditional pubs make me feel like I never fully read the pub-going manual. The food follows the model of that steak, for the most part. It is thoughtful and thought about. Cod’s roe is creamed and whipped, but allowed still to be its salty, pungent self. It comes with crunchy, pristine radishes, which are gagging to be pulled through it, and slabs of a warm, lightly oily, flaky flatbread, a little like a paratha, only with daintier manners.
There’s a beetroot “risotto” made with swollen jewels of pearl barley and big curls of freshly grated, nose-tickling horseradish. A purée of beetroot has been cooked through the pearl barley, then it’s layered with both chunks and slices of the same in shades of crimson, purple, orange and pink. It is self-consciously beautiful, like some polished 20-something who knows they’ll look just fabulous in any Instagram shot. More to the point, it is a proper flavour-punch to the gob. It reminds me of the classic Jewish beetroot and horseradish condiment Chrain, broken down into its parts so it comes back together again on the fork. It feels a little odd to encounter it here, amid what is part of the Duke of Somerset’s estate. Some would say the same of another main course: cod, with a brown shrimp butter and charred cucumber. It’s a reminder that this is aspirational pub territory, where cucumbers may get charred.
After weeks of trudging around, shaking my head at wine lists designed to make people feel as if they were fools for even thinking of going out to eat on a budget, the one here deserves all sorts of hosannas. The choice is broad without being exhausting, but more importantly it opens at £20 a bottle and about half of it is under £35. Much of it is also available by the glass and carafe. It’s a list written by people who want you to have a nice time. Then again, the place is engineered for a few days away rather than just a one evening stand. There are a dozen bedrooms and an associated spa in the village, also staffed by people formerly of Babington House.
A couple of days after my visit, their PR emails me to say that the head chef, whose name was trumpeted on the website at launch (and who, at time of writing, is still listed), had parted ways with the business a couple of weeks before. That may explain the slump at the sweet end of the meal. A raspberry puff with gin cream is a millefeuille nobody could be bothered to construct. There’s a hillock of juniper-flavoured whipped cream, a few raspberries, and some triangles of pressed puff, artfully positioned. It is an idea, unfinished. A brown-butter crumb with strawberries and clotted cream is a nice thought, underwhelmingly executed. It’s dominated by that under-sweetened over-salted biscuit crumb. Throw in more sugar and perhaps a few crushed ginger snaps and it might well be a dessert. Right now, it’s a waste of calories. Along with a choice of Brickell’s ice-creams, it feels like a dessert list specifically designed to make service more manageable for the kitchen, rather than to please the punters.
That glum note undermines the headline news: here amid the Narnia wonders of Longleat Forest an old pub has been taken over, brushed up, sanded down, painted, varnished and turned into an extremely civilised retreat from a world that, frankly right now, deserves to be shunned occasionally. This version of the pub may well drive certain people nuts. I suggest they go hang out somewhere else.
The much-loved JoJo’s, overlooking the sea in Tankerton just outside Whitstable, has launched a Crowdfunder to secure its future. The freehold of the whitewashed wedge of a building which houses the Mediterranean-cum-tapas restaurant, is for sale. To help buy it they need £100,000. So far, two-thirds of that has been pledged, in return for various rewards and inducements: a supper cooked by chef Tom Kerridge and hosted by Suggs of Madness is already fully subscribed, for example. But there are still others available in exchange for your dosh, visit crowdfunder.co.uk/save-jojos.
It’s a cautious, wide-eyed welcome to The Top Hat, a new restaurant on London’s Tottenham Court Road themed around the board game Monopoly. Cocktails reference different properties on the London board and you can ‘Take a Chance card’ when ordering drinks. The food, which includes stuffed pork belly with apple sauce and fish and chips, thankfully has nothing to do with the theme. It sits alongside Monopoly Lifesized, an attraction which offers a chance to play a scaled-up version of the game. At monopolylifesized.com/the-top-hat-bar-restaurant
And a few numbers on the staffing crisis in the restaurant, pub and bar sector. A survey by three industry bodies – UK Hospitality, the British Beer and Pub Association and the British Institute of Innkeeping – puts vacancies at around 10%. That equates to a shortfall of 200,000 people.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1