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Lunch At The Ashford Arms, Ashford-in-the-Water On Their Soft Opening

Published On Wednesday 6 Mar 2024 by Sticky Beak
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It’s always lovely and exciting when a new venue opens; even more so at the moment, with news of venues shutting coming along fairly regularly. The Man and I were invited to the soft opening of The Ashford Arms (sister venue to The Maynard at Grindleford and The George at Hathersage, which will hopefully be up-and-running again in May 2024 after suffering flood damage), and it was so nice to see the exterior back to glory after falling into disrepair in recent years, thanks to the determined efforts of Rob Hattersley.

Locals and visitors alike will be pleased to hear that there is a decent amount of on-site parking, especially handy if you’re going to be staying in one of the individually styled bedrooms. Unfortunately, the accommodation wasn’t open to guests at the soft launch, otherwise I would’ve barricaded myself into the one I sneaked a peek at #gorgeous!! Anyhow, I digress…just for a change, eh?!

Stepping inside the refurbished ground floor, we were greeted warmly – more like old friends than guests - and this is something that Rob and his team are noted for. In fact, this magnificently high standard of guest care is a cornerstone of what Longbow Bars and Restaurants Ltd. offer across their venues. Our coats were taken and hung up for us and another member of the team escorted us to our table in what I would describe as the ‘garden room’ area. Technically, the adjacent space was the indoor/outdoor area (complete with heaters), and beyond that was the outdoor seating area that is securely enclosed with sturdy wooden fencing and gate – this is going to be a magnet in summer for pooches and their well-behaved humans!

I fell instantly in love with the pitched roof and foliage-festooned, large circular lighting pendants that hung in the centre of the area. The relaxed, natural feel was enhanced by the fresh flowers on each table and in the window sills at the far end. My derriere was popped on a sage green banquette that had the most gorgeous, deep green velvet [attached] continuous bolster on its top, that had birds and grasses in its print.

As our lovely server brought a jug of chilled water over for the table, I noticed a wooden ramp that led into the next seating level; disability access friendly: tick. Fans of the grape will be more than happy with the choice on offer at The Ashford Arms, and regulars to The George and The Maynard will recognise most of them; there’s also a good selection of cocktails and lagers, beers and ciders to choose from. I settled on a juicy Malbec and His Nibs had a Picpoul; he’s not had this before and was jolly impressed by its clean, acidic profile - I was more impressed with the fact that this wine was offered by the glass, and the fact that each tipple is served in a mini-caraffe!

Executive Chef Adrian Gagea has delivered a stonkingly good menu here, pairing taste and texture with quality and accessibility; there’s no pretentiousness in the food, which reflects the ethos of The Ashford Arms: namely that everyone is welcome, whether you’re in your hiking boots or dressed up to the nines, and whatever your age. To kick our meal off, we ordered Caramelised Onion and Apple Scotch Egg with a Chorizo Mayonnaise and Mixed Leaf Salad (£9.75) for The Man, and pan-fried Pigeon Breast with Celeriac and Dark Chocolate Purée, Crispy Courgette and red wine reduction (£9.95) for me.

Whilst we waited for our starters, I went for a little wander about; satisfying my curiosity about what was ‘beyond the ramp’, I headed up into the next area. This space has altogether more modern lighting and there’s a wonderfully chill, amber glow cast from the bulbs that is very flattering to the complexion - worth noting, folks, cos it’s all about the ‘gram, y’know! Décor-wise, nature is still very much the evident inspiration with the muted tones and animal artwork on the walls. This is a good-sized area, so I was surprised to discover that there was yet another seating area beyond here, complete with its own bar – honestly, I felt like I’d stepped into the Tardis! The dark brown banquettes and solid seating gave this a more masculine feel compared to the previous spaces I’d walked through; The Ashford Arms is certainly ‘softer’ in character than its sisters, generally. Eager not to miss my starter, I went back to the table, discovering that Rob had gone to have a chat with The Man Bird.

It wasn’t long before our starters were been served to us, and straightaway, my beady eye honed in on the fact that each dish was presented in differing crockery; this detail is often over-looked, but colour and shape of the platters really can impact on your sensory experience. Whilst you don’t get haute cuisine fancy pants-ness in the meal itself, you certainly get the attention to other details that tip a hat to the quality you can expect here.

My pigeon breast was marvellous flavour-wise, its characteristic sweet-yet-nutty notes shing through. A lot of folks think that it’s a strong meat and so they won’t like it; whilst it does have a ‘gamey’ edge, it’s nowhere near as strong as, say, Pheasant, so I would encourage you to try it if you get chance. Chef had pan-fried the flesh to perfection, ensuring that it was moist and soft in the mouth and was ombre’d from brown on the outer to rose pink in the middle – perfect! Partnering the breast was a magical purée of Celeriac and Dark Chocolate that had my palate swooning in delight with its curious facets: velvet in texture, a gentle sweetness from the Celeriac and an intensity from the cocoa that married everything together with alchemical genius, along with the red wine reduction. Adding a welcome touch of texture was the super-light, crisp batter that cocooned the halved Courgette; honestly, if I died right there and then, I would’ve died happy with this dish being the last morsel to pass my lips.

Equally gassed with his choice of starter was my trusty companion; he does love him a Scotch Egg (as regular blog readers will know!), and he was grinning like a proverbial loon as soon as the first forkful hit his palate. The egg yolk was sublimely rich and creamy, with a hint of sweetness coming from the Caramelised Onion and Apple that coated the satisfyingly meaty Sausage meat blanket. Contrasting the warmth of the Scotch Egg was a cool, crisp mixed leaf salad, another sensorial treat; that wasn’t the only trick up Chef’s sleeve with this dish though. Enter the Chorizo Mayonnaise and its complex character; not just creamy and spicy - which, duh, is what you’d expect from the two elements – this was also savoury and zesty with a hint of smokiness shyly peeping out at the end. Another happy customer, so far!

For mains, we’d gone for pan-fried Chicken Supreme, Roasted New Potatoes with Persillade and Parmesan, and a Wild Mushroom Sauce (£18.95, His Nibs’ choice), and pan-fried Duck Breast with Chamomile-infused Rice, stir-fried Vegetables in Miso Sauce, and Sweet-n-Sour Pineapple (£24.50, my selection). Don’t come at me for going ‘double meat’, ‘k? It was just what I fancied, so I went with the flow, so to speak.

The sizeable Duck Breast was sliced in half for presentation purposes and had been rested appropriately so that, despite being an enticing blush-pink at its heart, there was no trace of blood anywhere to be seen. Duck is a bit of an enigma in the meat world; it is somehow sweet yet gamey at the same time, and both characters came through in my mouth. It seemed only fitting, then, that the equally quirky element, Miso, was used in this dish to stir-fry the vegetables in. Where the Duck was sweet, the Miso was a little tangy with that twisted, fermented tone it has; and actually, this combo worked brilliantly – not just in terms of taste, but also for the crunch that the vegetables provided. The oriental slant to this dish was continued with the bold confidence of the sweet-n-sour pieces of Pineapple that were authentically coated in batter. Bringing an air of sophistication here, was the precise round of rice, whose grains had been infused with Chamomile. The herb imparted a whisper of mild sweetness and a breezy florality to the humble grains, tying them in neatly with the other layers of flavour in this dish.

Across from me, His Nibs was lavishing all his attention on his meal. As he savoured the first mouthful of Chicken, a small sigh of contentment escaped his lips, testament that you should never underestimate something that you think is a relatively simple dish. Chef had retained all of the poultry’s natural juiciness, capturing its inherent softness and subtle flavour precisely, which then allowed the other components to shine. New Potatoes had been cloaked with bright, clean-tasting Persillade, a sauce/seasoning based on Parsley (‘Persil’ in French) and the unmistakeable tang of Parmesan. Being a fully paid-up member of the ‘spud club’, His Nibs could’ve just eaten a bowlful of these beauties for his main course and been happy, I think! As a recent convert to the charms of Mushrooms, The Man was a bit apprehensive as to whether he would like the Wild Mushroom Sauce or not. I was desperately hoping he wouldn’t like it, so that my greedy belly would reap the reward, but you can just count on him to like it…and he did, totally. Good for him, not so much for yours truly. One note: don’t believe the non-hype; the simple description ‘Wild Mushroom Sauce’ doesn’t do justice at all to this palate-bewitching, complex minx.

Having finished our second course, there began some UN-worthy negotiations as to the wisdom of having pudding at lunchtime. To cut a long story short, our gluttony (and the fact that the previous offerings had been so impossibly scrummy!) won out and we ordered the White Chocolate and Passionfruit Cheesecake with Ginger Coulis and Orange Sorbet (£8.95, for Him) and Apple, Fig and Blackberry Crumble with Vegan Vanilla Ice Cream - which I swapped for the dairy version, because I haven’t found a non-dairy one I like – also £8.95.

His Nibs has scoffed some Cheesecakes in his day, and this was definitely up there with the more generous servings. And if it’s sunshine you want on a rainy day (hands up 90’s music fans, who just sang that?!), then this bright, optimistic lovely is just the ticket; the perfect-textured base was topped with a creamy, lush body and crowned with sunny Passionfruit gel, complete with contrasting black seeds. I couldn’t supress the giggle that issued from my lips when The Man scrunched up his face as the tart fruit notes washed over his tongue; some things are just funny, especially ‘gastro gurning’! A cockle-warming glow came via the punchy Ginger Coulis, with a hero-like cooling tone from the Orange Sorbet. What a stunning conclusion to His Nibs’ food adventure at The Ashford Arms.

I have fond childhood memories (yes, I can remember that far back, before you say it!) of my Nana making a fruit crumble, and I always get a fuzzy, feel-good vibe whenever I see this sweet delight on a menu. My Daddy and I also loved having Figs at Christmas with our Cheese; so, with two happy memories combining, it was a no-brainer that I would be emotionally invested in this pudding. I had expected the Apple and Blackberries to be chunky, but it was just the orchard fruit that remained chewable; the Blackberries and Figs combined to form a thick, purée-like sauce - a very moreish, tasty one at that. The confident, sharp taste of Apple and Blackberry were tempered by the intoxicating, fragrant sweetness of Fig, making for a captivatingly balanced pud, and that was before I factored in the textural crumble topping that was laced with sliced nuts for extra crunch. Be still, my beating heart and bask in the adoration you have for Chef Adrian and his kitchen team: they’ve certainly earned it!

Throughout our visit, the service received was bar-none; staff appeared, Will o’ The Wisp-like to attend to every need, just when you wanted them. I have to say, this is another hallmark of the standards Rob delivers; he always over-staffs for this very reason, and also to take care of his hard-working team. If the provenance of your food, and sourcing ingredients locally, is important to you and influences your choice of dining venue, then let me draw your attention to the fact that The Ashford Arms’ suppliers are listed in the bottom corner of the menu. As a final [girly] footnote, I’m just going to mention the The White Company handwash and lotion that is in the lavatories; even in this area, attention to detail is considered.

Hot Wings very happily given to this marvellous Ashford-in-the -Water pub, restaurant and boutique hotel. We had a wonderful experience, and wish you all the luck in the future, not least on your formal opening day, Saturday 9th March 2024. Huge thanks to Rob and the beautiful Charlotte for inviting us to share in your soft opening event. To book, ring 01629 690490 or visit the website www.theashfordarms.com and hit either the ‘book room’ or ‘book table’ button, depending on what you need.

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