Recently, I went out with some friends over Bristol way for a bite to eat. Ordinarily, I would be happy with a few pints and a cheese roll in my local, but on occasion I do enjoy a good feed around and about. One bright spark suggested a local pub known for its food. Now, I treat any dining experience in a pub with due suspicion. Food in pubs is not something I am against per-se, but more often than not when entering a food focused pub, I am greeted with the sight of a disembowelled hulk of a once promising looking local, bedecked in a clumsy faux-rustic fashion, and served platefuls of ‘matter and chips’ prepared in industrial microwaves by an unenthused youth in stupid trousers. My rules for pub food (or more exactly, a pub which serves food) are simple - do it well or not at all, and never let the dry trade impinge on or drive away a pub’s mainstay of drinkers. After all, a pub without drinkers is...a restaurant.
Suitably guarded, the party pulled up outside the Forage Inns group Bird In Hand of Long Ashton. We enter into the large public bar. There is a lively drinking session already well underway, every bar stool is occupied, every table filled and every glass making regular trips toward a mouth. Bath Ales Gem, Butcombe Bitter, the ubiquitous but still excellent Doom Bar and the justly prized St Austell Tribute are offered from hand-pull, the first and last are sampled and both are in truly fine form. The bar is bright and lively, the custom friendly and enthused and the décor pleasingly contemporary, white walls and scrub top tables - none of that faded half attempted pastiche tat which I so detest. We are even spared the usual hateful enquiry as to our gastronomic intentions as soon as the drinks order is lodged, which usually elicits a violent reaction from your correspondent - ‘and are you dining with us this evening?’ Indeed, it is up to us to disclose that one of the more organised members of the party has reserved a table in advance, just as it ought to be.
We were then shown through into the considerably quieter eating area to the right, with places set, candles and small floral displays. The tempo here is calmer and refined, dimly lit and elegant. It is at this moment when I start to think, this is a pub out of the ordinary. The Bird in Hand just about defines what I expect from a really good food pub, dare I even say, gastro-pub. A proper bar area filled to the rafters with waifs and strays all carrying on in traditional riotous pub form, then separated off, a purpose built dining area for those interested in enjoying a good meal away from the frenzy of the boozy play-room - giving each set of clientele space to be.
|Fish and Chips - and Pint.|
Menus are presented; a little typed piece of paper with a reassuringly small selection of changing dishes. Everything is made on site - ‘from the bread to the black pudding’ - while the fish is delivered daily, meat sourced locally and much of the herbs, mushrooms and such foraged from the surrounding country by the chef and his staff. I opt for the Provençal Fish Soup, followed by posh Fish and Chips (battered hake, celeriac chips and pea puree). It is, quite simply, one of the very finest meals I have had in a long time. Everything is delicious. I am reliably informed that the Brazed Lamb teamed with a powerful Sicilian red by the glass, was also excellent. We finished the meal replete and suitably merry, basking in the warm glow of a very rare and fine pub operation - someone in the set up genuinely understand what customers want, and how to accommodate it comfortably and considerately. We departed around 11pm, when the bar trade was still going strong, though perhaps lapsing into the dispassionate drinking phase as the toll of the evenings enjoyment began to be felt. I then spotted that the kitchen provides home made scotch eggs, sausage rolls and crispy pigs ears to the bar trade, for those who simply wish to line the stomach.
The Bird in Hand is pub truly befitting the title of gastro-pub. It is a venue which places as much emphasis on the ‘pub’ part of that phrase as the ‘gastro’. The wet trade of the operation is a buzzing public bar selling good quality beer and cider to an appreciative audience. The dry trade manages to neatly avoid straying into the realms of an over-blown, expensive restaurant with rural pretense, though is able to provide a sophisticated and deeply impressive dining experience when required. It is heartening for this jaded hack, to find that such places exist among the mire of disappointing eating houses - both pompous and just plain crap - and that some people in the trade know how to use food correctly as a diversification of a pub's offering, while never forgetting the reality of what a pub fundamentally is for.