Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Assheton Arms, Downham, Lancashire

Downham is an improbably pretty village below the brooding presence of Pendle Hill near Clitheroe.  Many improbably pretty villages are described as unspoiled: Downham really is, as virtually all outward signs of modern life (TV aerials, satellite dishes, double yellow lines, overhead cables etc) are banned by the Assheton family, lords of the manor since 1558.

The Assheton Arms had a good name for food, and a bit of a leaning towards seafood, for many years, though it had started to go downhill and was looking a bit uncared for until it was put on the market.  There was talk that Marco Pierre White was buying it, but towards the end of 2011 it was Jocelyn Neve's Seafood Pub Company that took on the lease, opening briefly for Christmas before embarking on a major (and much overdue) refurbishment.

The Assheton Arms, Downham
 The exterior is, of course, unchanged, and I was surprised how much of the interior layout remained recognisable from its previous reincarnation. There is still the tiny bar opposite the door as you go in, but the dining area around the central chimney breast has yielded to a presumably extended kitchen.  More seating has been added (?) over two floors of the adjacent building (clearly distinct on the right in the photograph above), including a private dining room.  This building has been linked to the Assheton Arms for as long as I can remember, but I do not recall it ever being used; the door through to it being marked merely as the ladies' toilets.

The decor shows the same hand as their sister pub-restaurant, the Oyster & Otter in Feniscowles, though it feels much less sterile here.  I also thought service too, from the welcome and throughout, was markedly better here than at the Oyster & Otter.

On the way to our table I noticed some blackboards with a handful of specials, and lots of room for more, presumably at busier times.  The waiter then reeled off the specials at the table: we had to ask him to repeat them twice, and still don't think we could have said what they were all.  Laser printers are so cheap these days, and cheap to run, that I don't know why more restaurants don't print specials menus on a daily basis. If you've more than three or four specials, it would make life so much easier, and I suspect you'd sell more of them.

We had a mixed platter of seafood items to start with, which conveniently included many of the starters on the main menu.
Seafood Platter

King prawn sesame soldiers were ok, but the prawn flavour was a little overpowered: I'm not sure if there is a particular benefit to using king prawns over regular cold water prawns on prawn toasts. The salt and pepper squid  was certainly salt and pepper, though again, I thought there was too much emphasis on the crispy coating, leaving the squid as merely a carrier.  I have had more tender squid, but there was nothing to complain about on that count.  The rice wine and radish dipping sauce that came with the squid was terrific with well-nigh perfect balance.  The lemon mayo that came with the shell-on king prawns was also very good, and the prawns themselves were good quality.  Some herby fish fingers were also very good, but were a third deep-fried element on the platter, which seemed maybe one too many to me.  There were a couple of pieces of good smoked salmon on the board too.  But for me, the highlights (besides the dipping sauce for the squid) was some really good devilled crab and some gorgeous cockles in a very light, possibly gently spiced vinegar.  I would have really appreciated more of the cockles.

From the specials menu, we had a second starter of mackerel, which I think the waiter had said came with an oriental dressing.

What was supposed to be oriental seemed to me to be more of a Moroccan-spiced tomato fondue, and was absolutely delicious. I thought it would be great on potatoes, like patatas bravas, though it worked very well with the mackerel, which itself was clearly good and fresh and also nicely cooked.  You'll see in the picture above that the mackerel came on some salad: this contained some pomegranate and some raw carrot that was just a bit too chunky.  There were also a couple of small black things that didn't look like pebbles, but had all the digestibility of pebbles. I asked the waiter to point them out to the kitchen and ask what they were: the response was that the kitchen hadn't a clue what they were.  Glad that was sorted then.

Lobster and chips

Grilled lobster with garlic butter and chips was good but avoided being great, as the lobster itself could have been a little more tender.  The chips were much better than at the Oyster and Otter.

Veal cutlets
Also from the specials menu came two superb veal cutlets.  Beautiful rose veal, neatly trimmed, perfectly cooked, with a hint of flavour from - presumably - the robata grill.  A nice, light meat jus set the chops off well, though I thought the accompanying heap of mashed potatoes with vegetables blended into it was a bit clumsy, and there was just a bit too much of it.  The mash didn't really work with the veal for me.

The desserts didn't offer much of interest (and I'd had a few of them at the Oyster & Otter, without being impressed), so we skipped them.

Double espresso was good and huge, both of which are rare, and generally in inverse proportion (that is, the larger they are, the worse they usually are). 

The wine list is good for a village pub, and avoids the usual clichés.  We drank a pleasant, uncomplicated Portuguese Alvarinho.

I enjoyed this meal, and am pleased to see the Assheton Arms back in action and very busy again, though I'm not sure it really merits the unqualified, almost adoring praise it seems to get in many quarters.

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