Mike Amos, Northern Echo - Eating Owt
When is a door not a door? When it's a jarring note in an otherwise first-rate pub.
"A trick that everyone abhors
In little girls, is slamming doors" -
Hilaire Belloc, 'Rebecca'
NIGHTCLUBS and similar places of exuberant resort used to employ men in monkey suits - sometimes it seemed like monkeys in men suits - to expel those deemed to have sinned against the establishment's holy mores. They were called bouncers, though it wasn't they who bounced.
Now they're admission control executives or some such, required to sit exams - some of the newer universities may well offer a doctorate - and to read the recalcitrants their human rights before hoying them out, anyway.
It's officially called door policy, and it's what's urgently needed at the Countryman's in Hunton.
This is a pity - a clash-on as they might say north of the Tees - because in almost every other respect the Countryman's is an excellent village pub, which served us a very good dinner.
Hunton - as in shootin' and fishin', quite likely - is a largely stone-built village a few miles south of Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. There's a school, village hall, Methodist chapel and shop-cum-post office which, like a lot more, is for sale.
A few years back, it also had two pubs. The New Inn closed in 2002; a couple of years later the then-owner also proposed to turn the Countryman's into a private house. Hunton was aghast, even contacted the Prince of Wales who, somewhat improbably, had put himself at the centre of the Pub is the Hub campaign. The cuttings are still framed on the wall, along side some signed Man City shirts.
Reprieved, the pub was in turn bought last August by Tony Jackson, who'd been in the pharmaceutical trade and who in looks and mannerisms rather resembles Dave, who was behind the bar at the Winchester Club.
We'd twice previously tried to book dinner, once in midweek when the restaurant was full - generally, though not infallibly, a good sign - and once when it was closed because the chef was on holiday. That's an honest approach too, though it may not say much for the boy named sous.
This was Saturday evening, busy but not chocker. Among Mr Jackson's successes appears to be that the convivial, open-fired bar remains chiefly a haven for locals and for those who just want a drink. It's a hard balancing act, and there are many who've hanged themselves with the rope.
Four real ales included Fender's Favourite, brewed by Dalesman outside Harrogate and named after Tony's golden labrador who, it's said, is very partial to a drop of good beer.
The dog, in turn, is named after the familiar guitar. "If I get another, I'm calling it Gibson," said Tony.
They'd put us on just about the only island table in the room, close to the whirring, stirring, seldom-erring kitchen and with a similar effect to sitting next to the vestibule on a crowded train to London. Then there was the damn door. If only it had had one of those arrestor things on the top, what might be termed a jambing device. If only the little girl (who may not have been called Rebecca at all) had put her foot in front of it as it closed. What ensued instead was the biggest grand slam since Billie Jean King.
Advantage the Boss, she could see the young lady coming and thus brace herself for the big bang, though it remained reminiscent of the stale old joke beloved of sportsmen's dinner speakers when talking of Norman Hunter, Billy Bremner or Ron "Chopper" Harris.
"We used to call him Exocet. You could see him coming but you could do bugger all about it."
Reasonably priced, the carte is especially strong on sauces - orange marmalade with the duck breast, port and rosemary with the slow braised lamb, prawn, sherry, tomato and cream to accompany the pork medallions.
The Boss began with grilled goats' cheese topped with beetroot, apple - they've delicious apples - and roasted pine nuts, a successful combination. I had proper black pudding, and more apple, grilled in a great lake of grain mustard sauce. They believe in heating their plates around here, the blast like someone opening an oven door as they approached.
The lady followed with a firm and fresh lemon sole served with a light chilli dressing and lime and coriander sauce. Sea bass, monkfish and salmon steak were also in the fish section. Vegetables were simple, unadulterated, fine.
Goodness knows why, but I ordered the hoi sin duck stir-fry and, goodness knows why, but it worked - gently spiced, nicely flavoured, moreish.
The puddings topped everything.
We ordered the chef's selection for two, said on the menu to be for the indecisive or the very hungry. Take your pick. It offered five or six smaller portions of things like chocolate torte, pavlova, honey creme brulee and, best of all, a sensational lemon cheesecake.
With a couple of drinks either side, the bill was about £60. It was all very enjoyable; if only they hadn't dropped a Belloc.