IT’S happened again. Last time I made a professional call on the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley, near Eckington, the head chef walked before the review came out.
Lee Vintin took over and after three years I thought I really ought to pop over and see how he was doing – rather well by all accounts.
His cooking won the place Gastro Pub of the Year in the Eat Sheffield awards.
But in the middle of dinner manager Alistair Myers casually announced that Lee was seeking pastures new.
He was off that night, leaving 20-year-old sous chef Tom Lawson in charge.
Lee wasn’t the only thing off. I was licking my lips in anticipation at Pog Lane chicken, the locally famous bird which the kitchen serves with tarragon mousse and Madeira sauce, but it had flown the coop.
“They’re having difficulty getting them to the right size in this cold weather,” murmured Alistair.
All right, then, the duck. That was off, too. The chicken liver parfait, the only specials starter? You’ve guessed.
Now apart from the chicken the main menu at the Devonshire Arms is pretty humdrum and the interest is in the specials. We’ve not come out for gammon, burgers or fish and chips, however well cooked.
“We had an unexpectedly busy night last night, 40 covers,” said Alistair, a thought striking him as he disappeared into the kitchen.
Tom could do me the duck but with venison and a change of sauce. Expect juniper.
It’s at times like these that you realise what a manager like Alistair is paid for. Our evening was beginning to wobble and he steadied it.
After turning around Rowley’s in Baslow he’s doing the same for the Devonshire Arms, which does have something of an identity crisis.
This is no village pub. Much extended, there is a small bar, for locals, but the rest, with its dining room and open kitchen (you can watch the chefs through a letterbox hatch) screams “foodie.”
Out went the waitresses’ cardies in favour of smart uniforms, the menu is being tweaked (more is needed) and hopefully he’ll do something about a wine list which can’t offer a bottle of red for under £20.
You can get wines by the glass but you have to walk into the bar to see what’s on the blackboard list.
The owners are Gill Swift and her partner Glen Saint, a developer who rebuilt the pub. Gill hadn’t been too keen to name him on our previous visit so we dubbed him Bob the Builder.
Perhaps it should be Mister Concrete on account of the stuff poured in the walls that can hamper a phone call to the credit card people.
We started with some good, springy bread with oils (£1.95) and I went on to try the pigeon starter (£6.50).
This was three slices of breast, served pink, a mild creamed goats cheese, toasted hazelnuts and a port and apple reduction, a dish that delivered plenty of oomph but possibly was a little bit too expensive.
You have to look hard on the menu to find another starter and my wife settled for the garlic mushrooms (£5.75), a clever twist on an old favourite: creamy, garlicky mushrooms beneath a disc of parmesan and breadcrumbs.
This pub has certainly changed since the days of its best-known landlord, Tom Walker, whose ashes were scattered beneath the chestnut tree outside.
And if you relax in the sofa area between dining room and bars you might not realise this was once the room where the corpse of Eliza Hudson was laid out after being murdered by husband Benjamin with a fence stake in the late 1800s.
The venison (£12.50), destined to go on the specials the next day, was good, pieces of haunch cooked to pink, resting juicily on a mildly garlicky mash (I meant to ask if Tom has used wild garlic) with a rich red wine sauce, although I would have liked it to have had a little bit more of a juniper punch.
My wife chose the hake (£13.50). It was the second time Tom had cooked it for her, the first while sous chef at Rowley’s of Baslow. It’s a tribute to chef and fish that it came out so well.
Hake is a lovely, firm textured , almost meaty fish and the cooking was spot on. This, too, came with mash and a gusty sunblushed tomato pesto.
You get a side dish of vegetables to share.
Tom reckons he needs a little bit more experience before taking over a kitchen full time so Rob Stewart has been hired from the Cavendish Hotel at Baslow.
Of the desserts, the tarte tatin (£5.25) had the edge over the chocolate sponge pudding (£4.95), both very competently done.
So is the Devonshire Arms a pub or a dining room set in the country?
The bill, for food, said the latter: we paid just over £50 for three courses. Wines (£6.40 a large glass) and coffees (espressos at £2.20 each) racked up the price but real beers are on offer.
It runs a quiz night on Wednesdays, music night on Thursdays (we had the singing butcher) and fish nights on the first Friday of every month.
The Dawes Verdict
Lightwood Lane, Middle Handley, S21 5RN.
Tel: 01246 434 800.
Open for food: Tues noon-9pm, Fri-Sat noon-10pm, Sun noon-6pm. Vegetarian dishes.
Credit cards. Car park. Disabled access and toilet.