If there’s one thing The Plough needs right now, it’s stability.
Since it underwent a major facelift in 2007, the popular venue has seen a succession of publicans and a new name (Blackmore’s) come and go.
Few but the hardcore traditionalists can deny the transformation was spectacular and raised the bar, as it were, setting a new standard for pubs, restaurants and accommodation providers in Alnwick.
It went from spit-and-sawdust to boutique chic, with an amazing function suite, rooms, upstairs restaurant and ground-floor bistro.
Hopefully, the latest incumbent, David Whitehead, who also runs the Jolly Fisherman at Craster, can stick around to make a real success of The Plough.
The decor has barely changed since that famous revamp, the browns, plums and creams, wooden floors, chandeliers, gaudy mirrors and chunky furniture all standing the test of time. Although, I understand there are plans for another makeover and a focus on quality staff training.
As it stands, I would describe the gastronomic offerings as solid – you can bank on a decent meal, giving you the confidence to relax with fellow diners and not worry about the quality of the food.
The à la carte menu has an air of authenticity and style. It only boasts seven main-course dishes, one of which is vegetarian (mushroom and spinach risotto), one fish, one seafood and four meat.
It is a similar story with starters – just five, including one vegetarian (croton – goat’s cheese).
I applaud small menus – there is more chance of the dishes being cooked to order, they can be augmented with a specials board and, importantly, it doesn’t take me ages to decide what I want.
As it happened, the bistro menu was also available on the night we landed, adding a choice of paninis or baguettes (mainly £6.95), homemade Thai fishcakes (£9.95), cod and chips (£10.95), steak and ale pie (£10), Northumbrian sirloin steak (£17.95), and the like.
The specials were tempting – roast sirloin of beef served with mashed potato and peppercorn sauce (£12.95); seared fillet of salmon, with creamed leeks in a smoked salmon sauce (£13.95); and mixed grill (£19.95).
However, all but one of our choices were à la carte dishes. I plumped for cullen skink (£5.95), followed by tournedos of pork, with wild mushroom and tarragon duxelle, cooked in crepinette port Madeira reduction (£16.95). I rarely order pork but it was the recommendation of the waiter, so I took his advice.
Both had the mmm-factor. The cullen skink (which sounds more like a creature found stalking around a North American forest) was delectable, complete with diced new potatoes, leeks and smoked haddock, although thinner and less creamy than I’ve had before.
The accompanying bread, including fennel and black pepper flavour, was crusty and fresh and from the Running Fox stable (say no more). Shame about the foiled butter, though. Proper pats or ramekins would be classier.
My main course was even better. The pork tournedos were melt-in-the-mouth, seared on the fatty side to give a crunchy ‘crackling’ and smeared on the other with the mushroom paste. What an amazing combination of flavours, particularly with the creamy mashed potato and port reduction.
The side dish of broccoli and carrots were fresh and delightfully cooked.
Opposite, the request was for pork, black pudding and apricot terrine (£6.95), then Angus burger topped with local cheese, cured bacon, barbeque sauce and hand-cut chips (£9.95) from the bistro menu.
The coarsely-chopped pâté, combined with crusty bread and an apple relish, was breath-taking and the highlight of Mrs L’s meal.
The burger, arranged in picturebook fashion, with an in-vogue wire basket of chips and a vibrant, crunchy salad, was a fair old size and ultimately defeated her.The chips were splendidly tasty and genuinely hand-cut.
The dessert menu was likewise select and boasted two local treats – two varieties from Susan Green’s Proof of the Pudding and a spread of cheeses from the Maxwells at Doddington’s.
I knew how special the puddings were, so I tried the homemade cheesecake.
It was delicious – a wickedly-indulgent way to finish the meal.
QUIET NIGHT IN MIDST OF FOOTBALL FEVER
It was an unusually quiet Saturday evening, several local celebrations and World Cup football probably proving too great a distraction. So the service was prompt, relaxed and friendly, and the food artistically-presented. It would be good to see the operation under more testing conditions. The atmosphere was jollied along by some soothing modern jazz in the background and scintillating conversation with my better half!
The toilets have been an issue at the Plough since the revamp, with the ladies accessed from the main pub entrance, none upstairs and toilets for the disabled only in the B Lounge (although the regular ones are wide enough to allow wheelchair access) but the new owners are hoping to address the problems.
SELECTION FROM THE À LA CARTE MENU
Sautéed chicken liver brioche......£6.95
Croton (goat’s cheese)......£5.95
Pan-seared scallops, haggis, butternut squash puree......£8.95
Thai green king prawn curry......£12.95
Rump of spring lamb......£17.95
Pan-fried fillet of sea bass......£16.95
Pan-fried chicken, sticky choizo, Med veg, spicy tomato sauce......£12.95
Vanilla crème brûlée......£5.95
Proof of the Pudding’s sticky ginger or chocolate puddings......£5.95
Selection of ice cream......£5.95
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......9
Value for money......8
Use of local food......8½
Access for disabled......only to the bistro area downstairs; restaurant is upstairs with no lift.
Toilet for disabled......only in B-Lounge, although regular loos are wide enough for wheelchair access.
Verdict: A venue that oozes class and style, with great food to boot.