LAST time the Good Food Guide rated chef James Duckett they called him “a godsend for the neighbourhood.” That was in Barnstaple, North Devon.
If he’d have flicked back half a dozen pages he’d have spotted the place he was going to next, the Samuel Fox Inn, Bradwell, North Derbyshire.
So why move from the quayside of a picturesque Devon town with plenty of fish (the guide loved his brill on salt cod colcannon) to be the furthest in England from the sea in a valley full of sheep and cows?
A planned change of location in Barnstaple fell through and he couldn’t find what he wanted “so I spread my search wider and wider,” he says after our meal on a quiet Wednesday night.
The Samuel Fox is where chef Charlie Curran, now at Sheffield’s Beauchief Hotel, established himself so, after a brief interregnum, the upmarket pub is now set to regain its foodie reputation.
Not that he’s a flash chef. It might seem it from his CV: he got a job in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bordeaux at 16 by writing to the local tourist centre. The chef knew Albert Roux so there was a spell in his kitchen, and at Le Gavroche with brother Michel.
Then there was Gordon Ramsay’s L’Oranger (under Marcus Wareing) and The Square in Bruton Street, where he helped chef Philip Howard, a big influence, get his second Michelin star.
There followed spells in Australia and Spain before North Devon in 2008 and a stint at a private club to earn a crust before Bradwell. At 40, this is his first pub, with four letting rooms.
All those culinary stars might give the wrong idea about what he’s cooking now. “I’m trying to be a bit more realistic about food,” he says.
But first the place. It looks cosier than we remember. There are two real ales on the bar, Pennine at £3 a pint and a Kelham Island brew. You can eat anywhere you like but in the new year there will be structural changes to have a lounge area and more definite restaurant space.
To get us into the mood to munch, pictures include a Lynne Wilkinson original of a herd of cows.
On the menu (it will have changed by now) his fishy roots are seen in a crab soup and grilled mackerel on the starters, with fillet of plaice and a mussel and saffron broth and poached salmon with crushed olive and anchovy potatoes on the mains.
Starters hover 50p either side of £7 and mains are all comfortably under £20, apart from a steak. There’s a scatter of reasonably priced specials offered at lunch on the blackboard.
Bar manager Gareth settled us in nicely with breads (the white, with a crisp crust is home made, others aren’t as yet) and our starters.
Wild rabbit terrine (£6.50) packed plenty of flavour, very rabbity with big pieces of meat, not rillettes, and is at the right temperature so you can taste it. It was set off by chunky piccalilli.
For those readers irritated that restaurants these days are becoming more like branches of B&Q with slates, boards and tiles instead of plates the only hardware we saw was a slate for a slice of savoury brioche.
Chickpea fritters were the poshest falafel we’ve had, served as three large quenelles on, what makes this dish, a bed of muskily spiced diced aubergine.
For taste it beat falafel deep-fried in an oil drum I once had outside the rock-carved city of Petra in Jordan but perhaps not for atmosphere. The price, a far too expensive £7.25, would make an Arab wince.
Herb-crusted shoulder of lamb (£17.25) turned out to be not too dissimilar to a version I’d had here from Charlie Curran. The meat had been pressed into a tasty lozenge shape, with a herb and crisp breadcrumb topping, lamb and hillside on one plate.
It perched jauntily on spinach and was surrounded by pools of artichoke purée. At this price I’d have welcomed a sauce with some oomph rather than admittedly pleasant cooking juices.
I partly had this dish because it was advertised as coming with ‘heel tap’ potatoes. Gareth did his best to explain but they seemed nothing more than slices of roasted skin-on potatoes. Incidentally, I Googled them and only got one result, James’s menu.
My wife’s pan-fried fillet of plaice (£15) was a little stunner, two precisely cooked delicately flavoured fillets with a fragrant saffron broth of mussels and vegetables. “Beautiful sweet little mussels,” she murmured.
We wondered about how well dishes would be veggied up so James offered us a side plate, normally £3.50, gratis.
The Samuel Fox under James is making efforts to get friendly with the locals, who already have three pubs to drink in. He held an open evening recently to say hello.
For desserts (£6.50) there was an excellently light sticky toffee pudding with a home-made stout ice cream. My marshmallow meringue was mostly casing with little ‘marshmallow’ inside although I enjoyed swapping the cream for salted vanilla ice.
This is bright, assured cooking from James and Rob and they can hardly be blamed for a quiet night. With the bill for food and coffees coming to £62.85 it’s not cheap and they could shave a quid or so off some dishes
But the free veg was a pleasant gesture, as was Gareth offering my wife a 250ml glass of wine at exactly one-third of the bottle price.
You might like to try the Fox for lunch. We very nearly did, tempted by the prospect of steamed beef and ale pie or faggots with cabbage and mash.
Another godsend for the neighbourhood.
The Dawes Verdict
Samuel Fox Inn
Stretfield Road, Hope Valley, Derbyshire S33 9JT.
Tel: 01433 621562. Open: for lunch and dinner.
Music (quiet). Credit cards. Disabled access and toilet.