I do like a Brakspear pub. Each and every time I make my way through winding country lanes in a bid to visit their latest acquired or refurbished site, it feels like a small holiday. What’s more, upon arrival, that feeling is merely enhanced.
On this occasion, I was journeying from London to Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, patiently telling myself that the standard queues to and on the M4 were worth the journey. It’s only when I left the hubbub of motorway angst, and congestion started being caused by a leisurely tractor, that I knew my destination of The George Townhouse was near. There’s something about a Brakspear pub with rooms that warrants tractor traffic, small villages and farmland. Like I say, it feels like a getaway.
We leave London sulking in the rain and arrive in Shipston to a reception of sunshine, i.e. pub garden weather. No time for checking in bags – there’s mercifully one table left in the sun and it needs to be commandeered post-haste. Two glasses of wine are ordered – one Le Sanglier Old Vines rosé (£5.70), one Prosecco Brut Spumante NV (£6.50) – and, although we are here to try out the new dinner menu, a quick study of the lunch offer couldn’t hurt. With confit duck leg, lighthorne lamb rump and a mean looking Townhouse burger being devoured at the table next to ours, temptation was in danger of ruining our evening meal. Thankfully, sense prevailed through the ordering of a salad niçoise (£8.95) and a salad of Warwickshire asparagus, courgettes, peas and Jersey Royals, also £8.95. You can add chicken, salmon or goats’ cheese for an extra £3.50. One or two more rosés and we were shown to our room.
The George went through a substantial refurbishment at the beginning of the year, which not only saw a revamp of the menu offered at the managed Brakspear unit, but also the total overhaul of 15 en-suite bedrooms. Picture fresh linens and vast double beds complementing historic beams and structure, with the odd freestanding bath thrown in and you’ll get the idea.
After navigating our way through the labyrinth-like corridors and mazy staircases that lead you back downstairs from the rooms, we arrived in the restaurant of the pub. The back garden sits next to the bar and breakfast room, the front door takes guests straight into the dining area. It turns out that the lunch menu is actually the same as the one presented at dinner, which, when thinking about the level of effort put into our neighbouring duck, makes sense. As a managed operation, I’d imagine Brakspear’s executive chef Antony Ely had a lot to do with this menu. The style of the dishes and the temptation each one offers is reminiscent of other menus seen in businesses run by the Oxfordshire brewer.
As you’d expect from a pub located in fine English countryside, fine English countryside produce is prominently presented on the menu. Fish fans are well catered for through the ‘Pan fried cod fillet, olive oil mash, grilled courgettes, tomato and gemolata’ (£15.95); ‘Salmon and herb fishcake, pea purée, poached egg and hollandaise’ (£11 or £6 for the starter portion); and ‘Beer battered haddock, triple cooked chips, crushed peas and tartare sauce’ (£12.50) – a classic done properly.
Meat comes from Todenham Farm but a few miles down the road, and if it’s meat you’re after, you’ve come to the right joint. I mentioned the duck, the lamb and the burger, which are all popular orders here at The George. However, read a little further down the menu and you’ll find the steak section. There’s an 8oz Todenham Farm sirloin (£19.95), a 10oz Todenham Farm ribeye (£21.95) and an 8oz flat iron (£13.50). The latter, should you fancy it, also featured on the specials that night, sat alluringly next to a half Devon Blue lobster, garlic butter, watercress and fries. That particular surf ‘n’ turf will cost you £26 and, believe me, it’s worth every penny. Break up those mouthfuls with small sips of the El Coto Rioja Crianza 2012 and forget about anything else. Nothing else matters now.
Apart from pudding, of course. Pudding matters. At The George, every corner you turn you get a sense that you’re experiencing modern hospitality in a traditional venue that’s true to its roots. The rooms are fresh, yet still creek slightly. The bar is polished and adorned with myriad spirits, but still pumps out classic real ales. The same goes for the food – there are adventurous dishes and modern takes on high street menus, but the menu is underlined with pub classics that, I hope, will never lose their place. The dessert menu is where these classics really shine through. Among others, there’s a crème brûlée (£5), a rhubarb crumble with custard (£6), a plate of cheese (£5.50) and a sticky toffee pudding, with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream (£5.50). On the day I’m writing this review, Jeremy Hunt announced his idea of creating a national pudding database in a bid to encourage pubs and restaurants to cut down the portion size or sugar content of their desserts. The database will supposedly ‘name and shame’ hospitality businesses. If this bureaucratic nonsense in any way trifles with The George Townhouse’s sticky toffee pudding, there will be hell to pay.