You wander into a quiet country pub, where there are just three regulars sat in the bar area despite it being half-term week, and you make certain assumptions about what the food offer will be like.
Not necessarily in terms of quality and flavour so much as the variety and style of the menu – you think steak-and-ale pie and burger more than foie gras and truffle, not that this is a bad thing.
But then you notice the AA Rosettes for the past three years on the wall and then step in further and see the dining room at the back which is tastefully decked-out, but still retains a relaxed and rural charm.
It was at this point that my hopes for a casual pub lunch on a weekday were raised to expecting a mouth-watering treat.
Warenford’s White Swan Inn does look inviting from the outside, but that is only if you find it.
It is conveniently placed only about 30 seconds off the A1 but is not signposted, so unless you know that the hamlet hosts an acclaimed food pub, you may never think to try.
We ordered drinks and had a look at the menus at the bar before going to sit down at a solid wooden table in the restaurant area, which consists of two separate rooms.
There was a couple with a child who had just about finished eating as we sat down, so it wasn’t really a conducive time to dine in terms of atmosphere, but I can imagine it being great on a busy and bustling Friday or Saturday night.
Obviously we were offered the lunch menu and while I don’t know how much crossover there is with the evening menu, its breadth must be impressive if the one we saw is anything to go by.
It ranges from a BLT sandwich with fries and salad (£7.50) and more expected pub fare such as steak and kidney pudding (£9.50) and gammon steak (£10.25) to more exotic dishes such as confit duck leg with sarladaise potatoes and orange sauce (£13.95).
Even the vegetarian option seemed to offer something different and with a little thought behind it (although as an affirmed carnivore I am no expert) – tower of aubergine, courgette, sweet pepper, onion and mushroom on a watercress and nutmeg risotto with a beetroot sorbet and blue cheese sauce (£10.25).
There seemed no good reason not to have two courses and our eyes were immediately drawn to the smoked haunch of venison with cherry brandy and green peppercorns resting on a red onion marmalade (£6.95) and the seared king scallop with a pak choi, smoked bacon and sweet chilli sauce (£7.95).
Once I got over the initial disappointment that my venison was cold, I did enjoy the rich brandy with the flavoursome gamey meat and the red onion marmalade looked homemade and, importantly, tasted fresh and tangy.
The scallop dish was not cheap at nearly eight quid, but it consisted of four large scallops with the roe still attached and the tastes were balanced well with the Chinese greens and chilli.
Both dishes were artistically decorated with various coloured sauces which was a nice touch.
To follow, we stuck to meat and fish respectively. I went for the pan-fried calves’ liver served on haggis bubble and squeak with a honey and balsamic dressing (£10.50), while my companion chose the traditional fish pie (£10.95).
My main course really seemed to offer good value for money with three large pieces of liver on top of a mound of the haggis bubble and squeak – a new one on me but delicious – as well as an accompanying dish of fresh and vibrant vegetables and potatoes.
The liver was cooked well, not as pink as it could have been, but certainly tender and not chalky in texture as can happen if overcooked. The dressing worked really well and brought together all the flavours.
Meanwhile, the fish pie was packed full of fish with a rich, creamy sauce – perfect.
The inn serves food until 2.30pm at lunchtimes and, despite it being nearly 3pm by the time we finished our main courses, the one member of staff who was working behind the bar and waiting tables was quite happy to offer us desserts.
We were far too full to even take a peek at the puds on offer, but did stick around for a coffee (me) and another half an ale (her).
Admittedly for much of the time we were the only customers, but the service was prompt and friendly and we were never made to feel unwelcome or in the way.
FOOD TOOK THE CENTRE-STAGE FOR QUIET LUNCH
It was a shame that the pub was almost empty as I can imagine a packed and lively venue on certain evenings, but the main focus is the food, which was superb.
The prices are not at all unreasonable, especially if you choose wisely. Starters such as scallop, venison and oysters will always cost more, but my calves’ liver main at £10.50 was a warming and filling dish.
Being an inn, there are real ales on offer – Tyneside Blonde and Greene King IPA when we were there.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Cream of mushroom, celeriac and leek soup £3.85
Smoked salmon and salmon fishcakes on a watercress mayonnaise £6.50
Half-dozen oysters with an onion and tarragon vinegar, lemon and tabasco £9.50
Warm salad of asparagus, avocado and goats’ cheese served on salad leaves with a pesto dressing £6.55
Rib-eye steak coated with a cracked black pepper sauce, fries and salad £15.95
Escalope of salmon on a bed of roast vegetables with a hollandaise sauce £12.35
Deep-fried haddock and chips, salad and tartare sauce £10.25
Star ratings (out of 10)
Quality of food 9
Vegetarian choice 6
Value for money 8
Local food 5 (not on menu)
Children catered for 7
Access for disabled (steps up to dining area inside) 5
Toilet for disabled No
OVERALL RATING 9
VERDICT: Delicious and varied food at a real hidden gem.
CONTACT: 01668 213453.