Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Bell - Horndon-on-the-Hill - Essex

As I've mentioned before, my corner of Essex seems to be somewhat lacking in decent gastropubs, I long for something akin to The Sportsman at Whistable in Kent to open. It would totally clear up... there is practically zero competition in the area. (Although saying that, which foodie worth their salt doesn't long for 'a Sportsmen' to open in their area?). But all is not lost. There is at least one respected and well thought of pub restaurant no more than a 25 minute drive away from home. 'The Bell' located in the tiny and ancient hamlet of Horndon-on-the-Hill.

I've eaten here before, a few times in fact... back in the dark ages before this blog existed (Before Blog or 'BB' as I like to call it). When incredibly, I didn't feel the need to heft a large camera to every meal, startling and blinding fellow diners, momentarily frozen as if in a nightclub as the Nikon flash erupts.

I'd liked it then, but what really drew my attention back to it now was that I recently discovered it features in Diana Henry's respected 'The gastro pub cookbook' (A book, which I should point out was recommended to me by Browners of the excellent Blog 'Around Britain with a Paunch' - Thanks Jonathan!)
Diana Henry gives it a good write up, it's apparently had the same owners for 30 years, the meat comes from the butchers next door, the herbs from the back garden. I knew I had to re-visit and write about the experience on this blog.

It's Saturday evening, and we crunch our way on the gravel, across the darkened car park located at the back of the attractive, jolly and brightly lit Bell. It's a 15th century coaching inn with a colourful history. Supposedly an area out back was once used to burning heretics at the stake. (A perfect place to site a Barbecue in the summer I'd say). From the street you enter through the arch that originally allowed coaches bound for London into the Inn and through a side door up some steps into the bar.

Upon entering you are immediately struck by just how Dickensian and cosy it is. Heavy dark oak beams project upwards, a roaring fire in an ancient fireplace, beamed floors sloping away at crazy angles....regulars from the village crowded around the bar, it has a nice atmosphere. We move through to another dark panelled bar area with snug bench type seats (Which can't be booked - first come, first served for these). We're greeted and led to our table in a dining room just beyond the bar. (Tip - when booking, specify downstairs if you can, its a much more atmospheric area than the upstairs dining room).

Couple of things I need to point out before we talk about the food, my dining companions were the GF and my parents. And, I had an early evening utterly steaming hangover after attending the 'Towards a Fluid State' bloggers brunch that morning in Hackney. (More about this in a future post).

I began badly by choosing 'crispy confit pigeon with artichoke veloute and deep fried shallot rings' I was intrigued to see what this would be like, and I'm afraid to report that despite it arriving nicely presented, it was pretty bad. The Artichoke veloute was tasty enough but I wasn't entirely sure how I was supposed to eat it? It didn't come with a small neck it in one, shooter style? dip the pigeon in? pour it over like a sauce? I tried all three, and nothing seemed to work. The confit pigeon wasn't quite how I imagined, tiny bone dry flakes of pigeon heaped on a lettuce leaf, itself balanced on a pile of puy lentils. It was chewy, I was cack-handed, it was a nightmare to eat. intermittent bomb bursts of lentil and pigeon skittered this way and that across the table as I tried to shovel it into my mouth. I suspect I got more around the plate than I actually ate.

My fellow diners had more luck with their starters. My Dad's Loch Fyne smoked salmon parcel with crayfish, orange and fennel salad looked lovely, was a generous portion and tasted great.
My Mum's 'Crispy chicken ravioli with wilted rocket and parmesan cream' was also very good - the parmesan cream advertised more of a be honest, I wish I'd ordered this instead.

The GF's 'Baked squid, stuffed with crab, grilled razor clam, chorizo, herb crust and pane tiger prawns' looked good.....I say 'looked' because I didn't get a taste, by the time I'd finished chasing dessicated pigeon and lentils all over the table - she'd eaten it all.

Starters cleared away, it was onto the Mains and here things looked up for me dramatically. Both myself and my Dad went for 'Roast prior hall suckling pig with cinnamon roast apple and swede puree'. This arrived again, very nicely presented and in huge portions. Pork, cinnamon and apple is hard to beat as a combination and it was gorgeous. A rich, nicely cooked thick slab of suckling pig. It made up for my car-crash of a starter nicely.

The GF was pretty happy with her choice of 'Roast guinea fowl breast with saute wild mushrooms, mushroom veloute and baby gem' It was I must admit, beautifully presented. I had a sneaky taste and it was very good, with a nice subtle depth of gamey flavour.

My mother, to my horror (and no doubt the kitchens as well), ordered her main 'well-done' 'Roast chump of lamb with celeriac puree, diced celeriac and pancetta lardons'. Which was a bit of a shame. Despite being horribly overdone at her behest, was nicely presented and tasted pretty good. (Mum if you read this, sorry.....but your a gastronomic Philistine).

So, top marks for the mains all round. Beautiful stuff.

Now, the desserts I'm not going to dwell on too much. Frankly compared to the great starters (my awful dish excluded) and the Excellent mains, they were just OK, workmanlike and solid....but just not upto the same great standard as the previous courses. It seemed to me that desserts were the real achilles heel of the kitchen. I'd have much preferred to see some British gastro-pub classics on the menu, with perhaps a bit of a modern twist. The offerings were all a bit too poncified and fussy but didn't really deliver.

For the record, I ordered a 'Lemon parfait baked Alaska with chocolate sauce'. it was ok.
Other desserts ordered were 'trio of autumn fruit brulee with their own sorbets' and a 'rasberry cheesecake with pistachio ice-cream' all were "Ok" but weren't really memorable in any way.

Just to bang home the final nail into the coffin that was the dessert course. We ordered coffee's to finish and they weren't very good at all. Grim actually. Grey, dead and tasteless. Much improvement needed there I think.

Overall - despite the somewhat crippled crawl to the finishing post and the subsequent 'coup de grace' to the back of the head delivered by the coffee. We had a fantastic meal. The Bell is a beautifully charming and historic pub. The Starters and Mains were spot on with some extremely ambitious and interesting cooking, granted, it didn't always work (Exhibit A m'lud....the confit pigeon). But the huge portions offered mean you'll never leave hungry. The service was fast, efficient and smiling. If The Bell could return to basics a bit with the dessert menu, which just isn't on a par with the rest of the cooking; and sort out the dismal coffee. I feel it could only improve it's good reputation.
The meal for 4 with wine and service came to £180

The Bell

High Road
SS17 8LD
Telephone: 01375 642463


The Ample Cook said...

Yes those desserts do seem to have let the rest of the meal down don't they? No excuse for bad coffee I'm afraid.

I particularly like the sound of the squid starter and pork main course.Did the mains come with any veg or were they priced separately?

gastrogeek said...

lovely post Dan, my mum always asks for everything well done too....I agree with The Ample Cook, that squid starter sounds delectable!

Dan said...

Jan - agreed the desserts just weren't up to the standard of the rest of the meal.
The mains did come with side-plates of veg and potatoes, included in the price.

Rej - Thanks. Yep, what I was thinking going for the confit pigeon eh?

Helen said...

That baked alaska does look a bit funny in that photo I have to say! What is that on top of it?

Dan said...

Helen - hahaha bad photo perhaps the green thing was a macaron. It's just strange - the desserts look like they've come from somewhere else entirely and don't match the style of the other grub at all.

Jennie said...

My sister has a place in Whitstable! I know The Sportsman well! Lovely food! I too long for a place like that in this area! :(
Brilliant post! Crispy Chicken Ravioli with Wilted Rocket and Parmesan Cream!! YUM! The Suckling Pig also sounds delish!

Fantastic read!

Dan said...

Jennie - Think we could all do with a Sportsman locally. Perhaps they should roll out a franchise ;) (Im kidding!!)
Thanks for your comment!

Food Urchin said...

Nice, balanced review but you're in big trouble with your mum, you know that don't you Dan.

I am going to go back to The Bell soon after a flyby visit, I was very impressed with the leg of venison.

Anonymous said...

Have you tried the Lion Inn in Boreham. That is a lovely pub they also own the Blue strawberry and Stop the world cafe in leigh

Dan said...

Annonymous, no haven't tried the Lion Inn in Boreham, but am aware of the Blue Strawberry and of course stop the world cafe in Leigh. Thanks for the heads up, I'll have to get over there for a look.

Anonymous said...

You really should it's lovely for sunday lunch and you don't have to book unlike the blue strawberry where we often couldn't get a table. Let us know what you think