So for a bit of birthday treat, my wife took me out for a celebration meal last week. To be honest there isn’t much to celebrate when you reach your mid forties, but hey a decent meal will always go down well in my books.
For a number of years Jack in the Green has been the go to de rigueur gastro pub in this part of Devon, and the Masons Arms is great, but a good two hour drive to the other side of the county. Last year a relative new kid on the block announced their presence by winning a Bib Gourmand from the French tyre maker, unsurprising really when you consider that the head chef’s former employer was Gidleigh Park.
Ian Webber has been entrenched in the kitchens at the Five Bells since November 2013, collecting the Bib Gourmand from Michelin in last years little red book. Whilst many will view this award as a step down from the fabled star, it is actually trickier to achieve than some people think; the guide define it as such:
exceptional good food at moderate prices.
Generally fitting the criteria of three courses & a glass of wine for £28, no mean feat in anybody’s eyes.
On our visit it was a concise Sunday lunch menu, offering four choices per course with additional specials on the blackboards. Obviously, the major flaw with a specials board is that it’s static, so you end up wondering around the place trying to remember what it is, so you can then relay it back to your dining partner. Don’t worry, the Five Bells have thought of that. The specials are also printed up for you as well and are included in two courses for £18.50, or three for £22.50. There was a good balance selection of roasted local Pork, Lamb & Beef, as you’d expect in rural Devon, coupled with a few seafood offerings and vegetarian alternatives as well.
The wife opted for the Scotch Quail’s eggs, whilst I chose the glazed Mont d’or, Emmenthal & Gruyere, primarily because I do like a bit of cheese.
Unfortunately for me, my wife got the better end of the deal; two miniature Scotch eggs halved around a delicate salad with a smattering a Piccalilli running through it. It was a carefully thought out dish, using the richness of the runny yolks juxtaposed to a tingle of acidity from the Anglo – Indian chutney.
I looked forlornly on as my starter left me thinking that she’d got the better end of the deal. Effectively,I was presented with a cheese toastie, I felt slightly jipped at the promise of Mont D’or and its Swiss compatriots, only to be given something that was marginally larger that something I’d dip in a soft boil egg for breakfast. The bread underneath could have been toasted to add a dimension of texture, but the accompanying salad garnish was again a carefully thought out idea of lightly pickled onions & beetroot.
To be honest, I’ve never really been the sort of person that enjoys going out for a Sunday roast, I’d rather have something that I’m not necessarily going to have at home. Invariably this means fish for me, but the wife enjoys a good slab of meat every now and again 😉 , so that would be roast Lamb then for her.
For me it was going to the whole grilled Lemon sole, there is something mildly satisfying about a simple fish dish, uncomplicated & treated with respect.
My wife was suitably impressed with her roast Lamb (and addition Yorkshire pudding, which she asked for), although the vegetables were a bit disappointing. A small bowl filled with over cooked leeks & broccoli, sat on top of braised red cabbage. The key problem with mixing vegetables like this, is that the excessive water tends to collect at the bottom of the bowl, washing the juicy flavours from the cabbage.
That said, it really was a minor infraction into what was a decent roast lunch.
My Lemon sole was great, probably about 6-8oz at raw weight, lightly grilled and topped with just enough herbed butter to caress the delicate flat fish. It was a simple thing done well, the addition of new potatoes & a lemon dressed side salad were thoughtful yet classic accompaniments.
After a rather large main course Mrs H decided to give a dessert a miss, sadly as my belt & waistline can testify, I can not.
I had read about Chef Webber’s caramel tart somewhere prior to our visit, and it had pricked my interest. Thankfully it was on the specials board on our visit. Would it be hard or soft? Would it be egg based? So many questions.
For me it was an exquisite finish to a really good meal, there was balance in the caramel & salt, the pastry had a satisfying crisp snap to it, and the simple garnishes of Cox’s apple purée & granité were excellent pairings. For me personally, the only minor gripe is that maybe they could fill the tart case to the top, or is that me just being greedy?
In conclusion – The nuts & bolts of it
Is it worth driving out into the arse of nowhere for a decent meal? Of course is the resounding answer. Not so long ago the Five bells had closed, so the locals got it re-opened and they’ve been richly rewarded. Forget Michelin for a moment, places like the Five bells, Masons Arms and the such deserve to thrive, yes I’m not going to deny that I’m not able to go to every week, but they get it. Decent food, at fair prices which is inclusive of locals, is the way forward.
The total bill including drinks at the bar & a decent bottle of wine rocks in at about £70 for two, not unreasonable at all, and a rather pleasant way to spend 3hours of your life. Yes, there are little gripes ie the vegetables or my starter, which slightly mar the experience. But would I go again, or even wish it was on my doorstep? Of course, there are no pretensions, the Five bells know what they’re good at and stick with it. Fresh food treated with respect in a simple uncomplicated way, served by happy, courteous & efficient staff; maybe more chefs should take a leaf out of their book.
Congratulations on the Bib Gourmand to the Five Bells team, I guess this will just make it harder getting a table now.