Countryside venues, particularly in tiny communities have to go the extra mile to survive.
They cannot rely upon a bustling neighbourhood to sustain them year in year out, through harsh, barren winters and even unpredictable summers. They have to provide us, the travelling customers, with a reason to go the extra miles ourselves to visit them.
The Pack Horse Inn is snuggled comfortably in the arms of an idyllic village. It is cosy and quaint, delightfully refurbished in March with a delicate, but practical, touch.
The pub is modest in size, mirroring its surroundings, yet boasts distinct areas inside that can match your mood.
There’s a welcoming bar area; a comfy lounge with wooden floor, fireplace and plenty of furniture to relax into; a smart, carpeted bijou restaurant and a fresh conservatory, offering a slightly different dining experience.
The Pack Horse hit the headlines in July when it was thought the new landlady Linny Simpson, then 22, was the youngest in the country. She told me no one had contested it thus far, so it must be true!
She employed 2013 North East Chef of the Year, Gabor Pusztai, to put the watering hole on the culinary map. And judging by my visit, it has certainly worked. I wouldn’t describe it as perfect, more a work in progress towards perfection.
For example, we were sitting next to the kitchen from where music blared every time the door opened. It shattered the peace somewhat. Perhaps some background music in the restaurant would have helped.
But you can tell that the inn is run by someone who cares deeply. The decor was tasteful and totally in keeping, yet with a modern feel. Pleasant, friendly, informed staff created a lovely ambience.
The menu was interesting, inventive and reasonably priced, if a little fish-heavy, which suited me down to the ground and gave me quite a headache when it came to choosing. A five-minute discussion and advice from the waitress settled it!
I went all North Sea, starting with salmon ballotine with cauliflower puree and cauliflower fritter (£6.50), followed by cod with squash barley risotto and stem broccoli (£12.95). Mrs L mixed it up a bit more, with tempura king prawns and sweet chilli sauce (£5.95) to start and creamy chicken and leek tagliatelle (£12.95) as a main course.
While we waiting for the first course, drinks arrived (a delicious, refreshing pint of Blonde Star from the Anarchy Brew Company, Morpeth, for me and a glass of house red across the table). Complimentary artisan bread (sun-dried tomato and basil, I would hazard a guess), black and green olives and small cubes of butter followed – a thoughtful touch that created a generous impression. And not a foil butter-pat in sight – wonderful!
Our starters were delightful. The ballotine of barely-cooked salmon with a smear of cauliflower puree melted in the mouth. The flavours were complementary and subtle. Lightly-battered cauliflower florets added substance to the dish.
The tempura king prawns were equally tasty, although here, the batter was more substantial, if not overpowering. The accompanying salad and sauce were spot on.
My main course provided another interesting combination of palates. Pieces of bacon, mushroom, a drizzle of oil and cascade of watercress adorned a splendidly-fresh cod fillet atop a well of squash-infused barley risotto. One word – heavenly.
I was not entirely convinced about another deep-fried vegetable, this time stem broccoli, and would have preferred simply boiled.
From across the way wafted the smell of creamy tagliatelle. It was a colossal portion that would have satisfied even the most fulsome of appetites.
Needless to say, Mrs L struggled with the volume but declared it one of the better dishes of its ilk she had sampled.
Neither of us would have needed more than one course.
So, the dessert menu received only a cursory glance and we subsequently shared a lemon posset, more out of politeness than necessity. On a different day, the dessert choice would be more than adequate to keep us smiling.
I have already made a note to return and leave plenty of room for the apple crumble and custard. The posset, by the way, was a dream – just the right consistency and zing.
With a few tweaks here and there, the Pack Horse could easily be somewhere we’d go that extra mile for a relaxing meal and decent drink.
IT’S FRESH, FRESH AND EXCITING!
The chef prides himself on using fresh produce sourced as locally as possible, rather than frozen, to the point where landlady Linny is looking to purchase a walk-in fridge to cope with the volumes.
Staff even grow some of their own vegetables and villagers regularly turn up with armfuls of spare produce from their gardens.
As a result, the dishes taste more vibrant and full of flavour. He is also keen on changing the menu almost on a daily basis depending on what is in season or available, so don’t be surprised to see a totally different selection to that given on the left.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Wild mushroom soup......£4.50
Grilled goat’s cheese souffle (v)......£5.95
Red wine poached pear & blue cheese salad......£5.95
Mixed fish pie......£11.95
Butter baked leek (v)......£10.95
Roast chicken or pork......£11.95
DESSERTS (ALL £4.95)
Poached pear with toffee sauce; sticky toffee pudding; chocolate brownie sundae; apple crumble with custard or ice cream; lemon posset; vanilla crème brûlée; nutmeg custard tart.
Selection of local cheeses......£6.95
Ice cream (1 scoop, 2 scoops, 3 scoops)......£1.95, £2.95, £3.95
star ratings (out of 10)
Quality of food......8½
Value for money......8½
Use of local food (not stated on menu, but used where possible)......8½
Access for disabled (one steep step, or gravelled path to back door)......7
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: Classy gourmet food in a relaxed setting. Definitely worth a visit.
Food served: Lunch – daily noon-2pm, except Mondays; dinner – daily 6-9pm except Sundays.
Contact: Call 01665 589292 to book a table or visit packhorseinn-ellingham.co.uk