Food & drink / Restaurant reviews

Rural dining with charm at The Duncombe Arms

Duncombe.Arms-73.jpgNamed in the Michelin Guide as one of the UK’s best dining pubs, The Duncombe Arms serves up modern British classics with flair and style, as Amy Norbury discovered

We’ve got no shortage of fantastic eateries around these parts. But sometimes it’s good to venture a little further afield – especially if the experience is as good as our evening at The Duncombe Arms proved to be.

This rural gem has been lauded as one of the best dining pubs in the UK, featuring in the Michelin Guide and counting two AA Rosettes among its accolades, so we were delighted to be invited over to sample their offerings.

On the edge of the Peak District, close to the market towns of Ashbourne and Uttoxeter, it’s actually much closer than you think. Even better, come November the pub is opening bedrooms, meaning you can make a trip of it; perhaps take in a walk around the picturesque countryside, or enjoy the thrills and spills of Alton Towers just three miles down the road.

The pub’s homely atmosphere is evident from the second you set foot through the door; the greeting is warm, the fires blazing and the rustic-chic decor creates a stylish setting.

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The cosy bar area

Wonderfully stocked with everything from ales and fine wines to an impressive selection of gins and whiskeys, the bar is a convivial hub for diners enjoying pre and post-dinner drinks, as well as locals popping in for a swift drink. My husband immediately spied the pub’s very own ale, the Duncombe Ale, which he had to sample, proclaiming it an excellent pint.

The staff are smartly clad and exceptionally welcoming; service is truly top notch and we were well looked after from start to finish.

And then there’s the food. The scents wafting through from the kitchen are immediately enticing and the plates which were making their way to hungry diners looked exceedingly tempting. We opted to forgo a pre-dinner drink and head straight to our table in the restaurant. We’d made an early evening booking so it was pleasantly quiet, but by 8pm the tables were getting full – rather impressive for a Monday.

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The food from Stuart Langdell’s kitchen is as beautiful as it is delicious

The talented kitchen team is led by Stuart Langdell, who honed his considerable skills at Simpsons and as a head chef for none other than Marco Pierre White and arrived at The Duncombe Arms from a stint at Michelin-starred The Cross at Kenilworth. Stuart’s passion, he explains to us when he pops out of the kitchen for a quick chat, is for getting the absolute best out of fantastic local and seasonal produce. His modern British menu isn’t about wild flavour combinations and eccentric techniques; rather, using care and skill to showcase the glorious produce at hand.

And therein lay our first problem; what to choose from the small but perfectly formed menu? Each of the six starters and seven main dishes sounded so mouth-wateringly good, it was a tough task to choose between them. But choose we did, deliberations helped along by a good glass of shiraz and a platter of beautifully baked warm focaccia and sourdough.

My husband called dibs on the chicken liver parfait with burnt orange and toasted brioche, £8, while I was tempted by both the buttered asparagus with soft-poached egg and Hollandaise, £9, and the soused mackerel, beetroot and horseradish salad, £9. But it was the fried duck egg with stilton and aged balsamic, £7, which most intrigued me, so the decision was made.

The parfait was simply sublime; rich in flavour yet silky and oh-so-light, it was a dish both of us could have eaten again and again. The sharp sweetness of the smooth burnt orange chutney added just enough acidity to cut through the parfait and create a beautifully balanced dish.

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The pub’s decor is stylishly eclectic

Despite the parfait’s prowess, my duck egg and stilton combination certainly gave it a run for its money in the flavour stakes. The dish, explained Stuart, was a Marco favourite, and the unusual combination worked in harmony for an explosion on the taste buds. The egg was runny and luscious, and the stilton added a deep saltiness to complement the sweet brioche.

For the main event my husband was tempted away from his usual steak by the braised beef featherblade with smoked onion, creamed potatoes, watercress and horseradish, £19, at the recommendation of The Duncombe Arms’ general manager James Oddy. And it proved to be a winning combination. The beef was melt-in-the-mouth tender, yielding under the slightest pressure from a fork, while the smoking process added a new depth to the sweet onion. The potatoes were the creamiest I’d ever tasted – a substantial helping of butter adding a luxurious touch. It was superb, and my husband declared he was just sorry it had to come to an end.

I was equally impressed by my roast cod with lemon butter, capers, shrimp and crushed potatoes, £21. The fish was perfectly cooked, with the beautifully firm flakes just opaque. Acidity from the lemon and capers tempered the richness of the butter sauce, while the shrimps were little morsels of delight.

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A picture-perfect pud

It seemed a shame to move onto desserts; until the desserts arrived, that is. I love a good, old fashioned rice pud, and Stuart elevated this classic to something exceptional with the addition of prunes in Armagnac and crystallised almond, £7.50.

My husband’s custard tart with strawberry sorbet, £7.50, was a thing of beauty which tasted every bit as good as it looked. Thin, delicate and crisp pastry encased a perfectly set custard flavoured with warming nutmeg, while the sorbet added a refreshing fruitiness.

We finished the evening with coffees – a lovely Peruvian tunki – accompanied by salted caramel chocolates and, while we sipped our brews reflecting on an evening well spent, we vowed to make a return visit.

Good local pubs are worth their weight in gold when they get their dining right. And, oh boy, have The Duncombe Arms got it right. A great setting, exemplary service and a menu which leaves you wanting to come straight back for more – you won’t be sorry you made the trip.

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