When I sat down to write this post, I had intended it to be a review of The Bell Inn, Langford. Having visited this time last year just after they opened, we went back again for Sarah’s birthday lunch. But then I realised that writing another review would be rather pointless. We told you how amazing it was a year ago, and that hasn’t changed.
Since then, heavyweights of the culinary critiquing world such as Giles Coren, Dolly Alderton and Tom Parker-Bowles have been lining up to tell you the same (“on the final day of 2017, I had not just the best mouthful of the year, but the best mouthful of my life” – Giles on their bone marrow, garlic and parsley flatbread). If you haven’t got the message by now and booked a table, then there really is no hope for you.
Instead, I thought I’d use The Bell’s success to start a good old fashioned debate. To my mind, chefs make the choice between trying to innovate and deliver the next big thing, or focusing on refining the classics to perfection.
So Do You Prefer Culinary Revolution or Culinary Evolution?
Team Revolution is always looking to push boundaries, challenge diners and deliver an experience that transcends the humble food on your plate. Stimulates all the senses. Makes dinner an artform. And that’s wonderful if you’re Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz. The world needs innovators to keep things moving forward and freshen up our plates and palates.
It’s less wonderful when you are one of the many establishments looking to create a “unique” selling point in a crowded market. One of the worst culprits has to be high street chains looking for an edge (did you see Costa’s “flat black coffee” late last year?), although independents get it wrong too. Writing exciting and provocative menus is an easy task. Much like travelling to The Bell, delivering them to perfection is a winding B-road, strewn with potholes and roaming deer.
So many times in other restaurants I’ve ordered unusual dishes that I think will challenge me. Usually they do, but the challenge is sadly summoning the will to finish eating it. The chef has either been distracted by his latest hi-tech gizmo and forgotten he owns a perfectly seasoned pan or he’s taken what appears to be multiple lucky dips from his pantry and tried to cram them all on one plate like passengers on a rush hour tube. In his hi-tech gizmo. It might look pretty with spheres and gels and emulsions, but just because he can doesn’t mean he should. “Pretty” and “tasty” are not synonyms (although they can be neighbours sharing the same plate in the right hands).
Masterchef is a great example of this. You end up with loads of professional chefs, most of whom you would assume are perfectly competent. Yet set them a basic skills test and a surprising number fail miserably. Get them to cook their signature dish and no matter how exciting it sounds, too often Marcus and Monica are left pulling faces at over or undercooked food, or unbalanced flavours. Poorly executed avant garde cookery is easily the quickest route home; the highest praise is nearly always reserved for those serving up considered, concise dishes expertly prepared and refined.
So what about Team Evolution? For me, The Bell has pulled on the Captain’s armband and is leading by example. It’s the country pub that everyone wishes was their local; roaring fire, walls four foot thick and a menu of locally sourced, seasonal classics. Dishes comprise a few high quality, fresh ingredients beautifully showcased with skill and precise balance. That’s not to say that the menu is boring or lacking in creativity, far from it.
My main of locally shot fallow deer loin, so meltingly pink and tender that I could have cut it with a teaspoon, had a lightly charred, smoky bark. It’s companions, carefully chosen to join its quest for perfection, were vibrant sprout tops, sweet chestnuts, salty lardons and tart, plump cranberries. Finito. The End. They were the perfect complement to a wonderfully prepared piece of meat. Meat that had probably been bounding across the rolling fields that surround the pub not that long ago.
Had they been feeling revolutionary, I might have been served a flavourless hunk of meat cooked sous vide, an overpowering chocolate sauce, and perhaps a few purees smeared in protest at having been paired with Bambi. At a well renowned establishment that shall remain nameless, I was once served exactly that, at almost twice the price. All the elements were okay in their own way; however they all fought and distracted from the thing I chose to eat in the first place.
Please Serve Me What I Ordered
Similarly we ate somewhere locally just before Christmas and ordered a standard Christmas lunch listed as coming with “roast potatoes”. When it arrived, if you ignore that most of it was terribly cooked, my biggest issue was that they served it with a flaccid ring of fondant potato rather than crisp, golden roasties. When a customer chooses a meal you offered to cook them, why would you then serve something completely different? It could have been the best fondant potato in the world but I would still have wanted the roast potatoes you promised.
Back to The Bell
Don’t get me wrong, The Bell offers signature flourishes and twists to elevate the classics. But they are still variations of dishes you might expect to see all over the country. They’ve just evolved and refined them to be the best version of themselves, leaving me feeling content that I got exactly what I ordered and it tasted exactly how I wanted it to.
This culinary evolution is I think the key to The Bell’s instant success. Customers feel immediately at home as they step over the flagstone threshold. They can sit back, relax, eat excellent food and pay sensible prices. Recognisable and comforting.
So for now, unless I actively choose a revolutionary restaurant as an experience, I’m hoping the places I visit are going to be the epitome of Culinary Evolution. And when Team Revolution comes up with another classic, I look first to seeing what Team Evolution does with it!