In her world, punctuality is just a long word that’s difficult to spell. It’s an inconvenience, like when a zip jams and it’s time to leave the house; or when you paint the front door with really expensive paint and a storm rolls in 21 minutes later. Damn that streaky gloss.
Unless, of course, there’s a really important meeting, in which case, The Queen of Puds arrives three days early and gloats like a goat that’s snuck into field of green grass.
She’d disgraced herself a week earlier, recommending a pub that served us frozen food. Actually, that’s an exaggeration, though only a little. The food we ate was only frozen in the middle: the outside was perfectly fried. If we’d nibbled it like some do the chocolate coating of an Aero we’d have been fine. Compared to the Horse and Jockey, that place was the stuff of night-mares. Neigh!
Dessert Lady was determined to make amends and so conjured another spiffing – yes, I just used the word spiffing and, no, I’ve not been re-reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – pub. Except she’d not checked where it was. So when she jumped into her pink carmobile and checked her satnav, she’d realised it was pretty much at the northernmost tip of Shropshire, rather than just a mile down the road.
The faux apologetic text said she’d be there half an hour late, which gave me plenty of time to, err, gaze into the mid-distance while the barmaids and other customers imagined I was Billy No Mates who’d been stood up by his bestie. They probably imagined I wouldn’t be there fur-long. Boom! Boom! We’re back in the game for the Christmas cracker joke gig.
When Queenie and I ventured seperately to the Horse and Jockey at Grindley Brook, near Whitchurch, and both wondered whether we might end up in Manchester. Or Warrington. Or some other northern town. For Grindley Brook is border country. The sign for Cheshire is located just past the entrance to the car park, which, strangely, is rutted like the Dark Side of the Moon. Pink Floyd enthusiasts might have a field day navigating their way across a once-level surface.
The pub itself is excellent. It’s everything a modern-day boozer should be. Couples drinking wine, friends supping coffee, old guys drinking beer, well-behaved dogs snuggling up before the fire . . . it ticks all the boxes. A decent range of ales keeps the regulars satisfied, the landlord and his youthful team are friendly and warm and there was a genial, amiable atmosphere. It was a little like The Armoury, in Shrewsbury, or The Fox, at Chetwynd Aston, but with room to breathe and a little more calm – and, of course, a really bad car park.
The Horse and Jockey isn’t a restaurant. It isn’t a gastro pub. It’s a pub. But, like all 21st century pubs, it serves food. Few boozers can survive these days without offering a decent burger, a tender steak or a fragrant curry. And The Horse and Jockey does all of those things – and more.
It offers two menus: a tapas selection that runs the gamut from teeny weeny starters to sensibly-sized mains and from seasonal veg to starchy sides. Then there’s a regular menu of home comforts, which includes ham, egg and chips; curry, rice and bhaji; steak’n’ale pie with chips; piri piri chicken burger and chips; burgers, steaks and beer battered fish with chunky chips and rustic tartare sauce. There’s a kids’ menu, too, which is brilliantly constructed. Five garnishes, five protein options and five sides can be mixed and matched, so the young ‘uns can eat whatever they fancy. Good work, Mr Menu Designer. The kids will love you forever.
The Queen of Puds was looking for a new crown. She’d decided to become the Czar of Tapas, a sovereign ruler who would pick seven dishes for us to graze upon. And, bless her, she chose as well as a punter taking a 5,000-1 long shot on Leicester winning the Premier League, or Williams/Williams and Rafa/Federer meeting in the final of the Aussie Open.
Our tapas were delivered en masse, so that we could hop from dish to dish like Catalan sophisticats in downtown San Sebastian. Southern fried chicken strips were fantastic; a crunchy, spicy coat concealed tender, moist, bite-into-them-and-watch-out-for-the-steam chicken strips. They were served with a piri piri dip that might have found an alternative use powering NASA’s new Space Launch System rockets. Hot is an understatement. She dipped into it and had what I imagined might be an asthma attack. I followed, gung-ho, and put out the tongue flames with a jug of ice water. Turn down the chilli, chef.
Chilli beef strips with spring onion, red onion and peppers were delicious. The sauce was meaty and subtle, the veg just cooked through, the beef meltingly tender. Tuna carpaccio was one of the dishes of the night. Served with a piquant and warm chilli and lime jam with sharp, acidic pickled cucumber and rocket, it was classy and delicious. Pan-fried chorizo with red onion and a red wine sauce was indulgent, peppery and robust.
The best course was a smoke salted sea bass with samphire and pickled cucumber. It had been cooked brilliantly, so that the skin was crisper than Gary Lineker’s bank balance after depositing the cheque from Walker’s. The samphire was nicely cooked and added a salty edge while the pickled cucumber gave it edge. We ordered a bowl of proper chips, which were half decent, and slowly grazed our way around the table. We were ravin’, not quite like lycra-wearing, glo-stick-waving, legal-high-poppin’ ninjas, but almost.
The waitress asked whether we’d like desserts. The Queen of Puds scoffed. “An apple and honeycomb crumble with creamy custard and a slice of pecan tart with Chantilly cream, please.” She looked at me across the table: “Are you ordered anything?”
We shared the desserts. The crumble was decent with the honeycomb adding sweetness and texture and giving the dish a novel twist. The custard was yellower than Big Bird and looked as though it might be the wrong side of radioactive and I focused on the sweetened apples and crumbling topping. The pecan pie was magnificent. Sticky, rich and served with counter-balancing Chantilly and a toffee sauce, we devoured it like sweet-toothed soldiers fighting for the last choux pastry ball in a caramel-tastic croquembouche. She won. Of course.
Service was great. The two waitresses were young but talented. Both had bags of confidence, great people skills and a keenness to make sure customers were happy. They were efficient, courteous and remarkably well-mannered and improved our dining experience.
The journey home took 17 days while driving at a steady 53.3mph – Grindley Brook is, almost literally, at the tip of Northern Scotland (I exaggerate, but only slightly) – but it had been worth it. Decent pubs are hard to find but the Horse and Jockey is a class act. It balances the functions of a traditional pub with warm fires, frothy ales, strong coffees and plush sofas with the modern day requirement for decent food. For once, I’m not a neigh-sayer. Food like that can stirrup the emotions.