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Dinner review: The Bushel & Strike, Ashwell

PUBLISHED: 17:17 05 August 2016 | UPDATED: 17:17 05 August 2016

Pan-fried hen’s egg with merguez sausage, grilled spring onion and saffron aioli (Photo: Brian Arnopp)

Pan-fried hen’s egg with merguez sausage, grilled spring onion and saffron aioli (Photo: Brian Arnopp)

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Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne samples a lively village pub with an entertaining menu and crowd-drawing ideas

Chocolate and orange gateau served with pistachio tuile (Photo: Brian Arnopp)Chocolate and orange gateau served with pistachio tuile (Photo: Brian Arnopp)

Hertfordshire is fortunate in being dotted with country taverns of note, but the Bushel and Strike in Ashwell stands out – intriguing name, steeped in history, with a cosy rural setting down a country lane opposite a parish church dating from the 14th century.

Taken over in 2014 by Martin Nisbet and Lucy Thompson, it is also enjoying a new lease of life, and successfully so, if the jolly crowd enjoying themselves in the garden on the warm summer’s evening I visited is anything to go by. Like many of its fellows in this new era of pubs-with-food, it faces juggling the competing interests of those who enjoy a good drinking hole and those seeking a meal different from the traditional bar menu.

As the website puts it, ‘Here at the Bushel and Strike we strive to serve great food, well-kept cask ale, fine wines and a genuine warm level of hospitality.’

Fair enough. And worth noting is the fact that all the cask ales, such as Eagle IPA, Youngs Special and Courage Directors, come from the nearby Bedford brewer Charles Wells.

Bushel & Strike, AshwellBushel & Strike, Ashwell

As the customers in the garden show, the drinks side is in good hands, but there is also an emphasis on food, not surprising considering Nisbet’s background as a chef for nearly 20 years at five-star hotels and Michelin-rated restaurants in London and France. His passion, he says, is working with the finest ingredients and serving them up with ‘genuine, good old-fashioned hospitality’.

Backing this up is Thompson’s background in events and catering, which has ranged from organising dinners at 10 Downing Street, exhibitions at London’s Earls Court and events for Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant to most recently running one of the UK’s largest children’s farm parks. She was brought up in the Ashwell area and says taking over the Bushel and Strike has been like coming home.

The surest sign of change afoot at the Bushel is Nisbet’s menu, which changes sometimes daily. On the night I was there, I was offered a good range of dishes enlivened by some right-on touches such as saffron aioli, gremolata, miso dressing and yuzo ice cream. No, I didn’t know some of them either, but I looked them up. Gremolata is, and I quote, ‘a chopped herb condiment classically made of lemon zest, garlic and parsley’. It often accompanies veal but here it turned up garnishing my starter of cured line-caught mackerel and plum tomato salad (£7), giving it a burst of flavour that nicely offset the fish. My other half was attracted by pan-fried hen’s egg with merguez sausage, grilled spring onion and saffron aioli (£6.50), which she found a tasty and satisfying combination. Other good-looking choices among the starters included twice-baked cheese soufflé (£6.50) and herb-crusted tuna carpaccio (£7.50).

For mains, stuffed saddle of rabbit (£16) was an almost-automatic choice for me, betraying my Norfolk origins. It came with confit rabbit leg, courgettes, artichokes, butter beans and a red pepper ragout, the meat creamy and slightly gamey set off by a sensible choice of veg and a perky ragout that made a good finishing touch. Across the table, the vote was for pan-fried sea-reared trout (£15.50), served with marinated potatoes, sea vegetables, crayfish, capers and lemon (£15.50). It was pronounced as good as it sounded. The sea vegetables, popular in Asia, were an exotic touch, though which of the seven usually available went into this dish was not specified.

Another Asian influence popped up in the dessert menu in the form of the yuzo, or yuzu, a citrus used to flavour the ice cream on the shared dessert of choice, a chocolate and orange gateau (£7) also served with pistachio tuile. The ice cream swung the vote, but it was not an easy decision from a dessert list that also featured passion fruit soufflé (£7.50) with white chocolate ice cream, and summer berry fool (£6.50) with crushed meringue and raspberry sauce, not to mention a selection of goodies from the Cheese Plate in Buntingford.

An aspect of juggling the bar-restaurant concept is that on a quiet night for food, you might find yourself as we did seated in the middle of a stream of good-natured bar traffic rather than in a separate room, but it’s part of the homely atmosphere. For busy nights or special occasions, there is a refurbished function/dining room which might yet metamorphose into a fully-fledged restaurant. For now, it is used for private gatherings and hosting events like the increasingly-popular Supper Club with five-course set menu of chef’s choice at £35 a head, or themed evenings featuring French, Spanish or Italian cuisine. w

The cost of this meal for two was £67.80 including a glass of sparkling wine and two pints of Courage Directors. Service is extra.

This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.

Book a table

Bushel and Strike

5 Mill Street, Ashwell nr Baldock SG7 5LY. 01462 742394. bushelandstrike.co.uk

3 of a kind

Pubs with top chefs

The Tilbury

Watton Road, Datchworth SG3 6TB. 01438 815550. thetilbury.co.uk

Two AA Rosettes and Good Food Guide listings keep the flags flying for a well-known hostelry and its inventive kitchen team.

The Great Northern

Enduring and characterful St Albans pub in process of building a foodie side, now with new chef Toby Geneen from Pure Taste, Notting Hill.

172 London Road, St Albans AL1 1PQ. 01727 730867. greatnorthernpub.co.uk

Three Horseshoes

74 High Street, Hinxworth SG7 5HQ. 01462 743335. thethreehorseshoeshinxworth.com

Cosy village pub with bar area, conservatory-style dining area and large following. Look for charred asparagus among the starters, butterflied Cajun chicken as a main.

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