We spotted Carson, the Earl of Grantham’s butler (aka the larger-in-life actor Jim Carter) just as we were settling down with our drinks to peruse the menu at the Carnarvon Arms, which had recently opened after a complete refurbishment.
The last time he was there, the village inn was under the auspices of Marco Pierre White’s rapidly-expanding (perhaps too rapidly as it turned out) Wheeler’s group. Pierre White, once the enfant terrible of the culinary world, had fitted it out in a somewhat eccentric manner, with glass tanks full of taxidermy – perch and trout that he said he and his sons had caught, stag’s heads and a tableau of ravens perched on a country fence.
Now, all the butler can see with regard to creatures, is the benign model of a woolly sheep and pictures of farm animals on the walls. This must come as something of a relief to those who prefer not to sip their pints under the glassy gaze of assorted stuffed beasts.
The new owner, Redcomb Pubs, who started up five years ago, is after a less edgy, more understated look with, many might say, a less alarming ambience. The private rooms have been opened up to give the place a more expansive feel, while still affording lots of little nooks and private crannies in which to converse quietly.
The eclectic collection of paintings with which Pierre White had adorned the dining room, has been replaced with artwork and designer wallpaper that are less challenging and probably more sympathetic to a wider range of tastes.
On trend with a fashionably varied collection of tables and chairs, there are other little touches here that make you feel welcome, like the soft tartan throws scattered about the alfresco dining area, where Jim Carter and co were seated, should the temperature drop on chilly summer evenings.
The general manager, Simon McGlothlin, told us that this was the 17th establishment he has opened, and the experience shows. He was friendly without being effusive, polite without being deferential, so that when he tells you that Redcomb isn’t just out to make heaps of money, and the group genuinely delights in creating a friendly community environment without being pretentious, you tend to believe him.
This ethos is certainly reflected in the menu, which is very reasonably priced for a dining room of its calibre, with starters coming in at just £4.95 for a potato, watercress and truffle oil soup, and mains starting at £12.95 for beer battered fish and chips (fish sustainable, tartare sauce homemade, naturellement).
The most expensive item on the menu was the 32-day aged 100z sirloin steak, costing £21.95, which my famished student daughter chose, mainly because she she doesn’t get to eat this sort of food very often. The hunk of meat was huge and although perhaps a little more rare in the middle than she had been expecting at first, she soon melted when she realised the moist and flavourful benefits of cooking it that way, further revelling in the “creamy, buttery” béarnaise sauce and the soft-hearted but outwardly crunchy triple-cooked chips.
Smacking her lips when she’d finished – we’d fallen into a silent reverence as we tucked in – she declared: “I can’t fault this. In fact, this is probably the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” And, although she doesn’t eat out regularly, she’s not a complete novice on the steak front, either, as family connections have taken us to Argentina a couple of times – and if it’s one thing Argentinians really do know about, its’ their steak. Indeed, so crucial is it to the diet, that road workers can be found barbecueing it on little griddles at the side of the road.
But I digress from what was turning out to be a delicious meal. For starters, she had opted, from the specials menu, for the sautéed wild mushrooms on toasted sourdough with a poached hen’s egg. A very generous portion of everything was to be had here, too. The egg was rich and unguent and the mushrooms well cooked and full of flavour.
I went for the potted ham hock, again a very generous portion, attractively served in a Kilner jar, and accompanied by apricot chutney and mixed pickles, both obviously homemade – possibly the only way to achieve the mellow sweetness of the chutney, and the not too sharp acidity of the beautifully turned pickles. The hock was pull-apart soft, with just a touch of saltiness.
My mains of pan-fried gilthead bream and (oh yum) large chunks of poached native lobster, was again from the specials menu, as recommended by Simon. This was a beautifully presented and balanced dish with mixed radish and citrus crushed potatoes providing just enough acidity to complement the fish, which was crisp on the outside, tender underneath.
Both these dishes were washed down by glasses of red and white wine, chosen from a menu with which my daughter was particarly enamoured, given that it was fairly extensive and “well explained”. Again, with a lack of pretentiousness that seems to epitomise the new-look Carnarvon Arms, each wine came with a line of description that she felt, “as one who knows little about wine but wants to learn”, was really helpful.
We weren’t going to have puddings, but Simon was just too tempting with his descriptions, and I fell for the morello cherry mousse, that turned out to be as as pretty as a picture and sweetly divine partnered with frangipane and sorbet, while the gannet on the other side of the table declared her lemon posset, which came with shortbread and fresh raspberries, to be “rich, citrussy and very satisfying”, although it was starting to be a struggle to finish, even for her. We were both impressed by the variety the menu offered,which was interesting without being overwhelming, because of its local content – like the sausages and ale pie – and the wondrous sides (all at £3) that offered such treats as macaroni cheese topped with bacon parsley crumb and truffle oil, that you could almost eat as dishes in their own right. There are large and small plates, and boards to share, so something, really, for however your mood takes you.
The head chef Russell Hunt, who came to the Carnarvon Arms with a CV as tall as a chef’s hat, agrees that they are “trying to cater for everyone’s needs, without offering too much. It’s a nice balance… menus can get boring with all their ‘on a bed of this’, ‘laced with a dressing of that’.
Russell describes his cooking as modern British with a European influence.
“I like to concentrate on local ingredients. Really beautiful mutton joints, from the nearby farm, for instance. But I do have a classical French training and I like to introduce that as well. The most important thing is flavour. And then nice presentation. People are really interested in the provenance of their food... I blame the cooking programmes, really. I love the Great British Menu. I do find it inspirational.” Talking of television, Russell even made it on to MasterChef – The Professionals once… but that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, Simon says he’s been taken aback by the “positivity” they’ve encountered since they opened. “I have to keep pinching myself,” he says. “The feedback has been great across the board. Everyone has been so welcoming and friendly. It’s got that sort of community spirit.” And the sort of well-priced, beautifullycooked food that should keep the inn thriving long after the Downton Abbey crew have packed up and gone home.
At a glance
Style – Once a coaching inn built some 200 years ago to provide a stop-off for travellers to nearby Highclere Castle, the Carnarvon Arms is now an informal and friendly modern country inn suitable for business and leisure travellers... and the cast and crew of Downton Abbey
Facilities – Ample on-site parking, large dining room with a high vaulted ceiling, friendly bar. Private functions welcome. Prices – Starters from £4.95. Bread board, £4.50. Sharing boards from £10.75. Large or small dishes, from £5.75/£9.95. Mains, from £10.95. Puddings from £5.30. Cheese board £7.95.
Drinks – Wide selection of real ales. Alongside the modern ales made by young brewing companies,they keep classic beers from all over Great Britain. Comprehensive, well described wine list.
Accommodation – Nineteen stylish guest rooms with fluffy towels, luxury toiletries and flat screen TVs with Freeview and free wi-fi. There is also a ground floor bedroom with wet room with handrails, shower chair and panic cord.
Attractions – Next door to Highclere Castle and a few miles from Newbury town centre, the inn is on the route of The Wayfarers Walk and is close to the North Wessex Downs Area of Oustanding Beauty.
Location – Winchester Road, Whitway, Newbury, RG20 9LE
Contact - http://thecarnarvonhotel.com Telephone (01635) 278222