It’s had the same owners for the last 60 years – or did, until last year. So, is a change as good as a rest for this historic Lacock pub? LAURA ROWE finds out
Ask kirstie And Phil, and they’ll probably tell you the real magic ingredient needed for a successful restaurant is the location. Gordon Ramsay, however, says you need to choose the right chef – and keep the menu short. And Restaurant Inspector Fernando Peire reckons it’s all to do with service and atmosphere. So what’s the new incarnation of Wiltshire’s Sign of the Angel using to win over customers? I reckon it’s a little bit of everything.
Located in the National Trust village of Lacock, this 15th-century coaching inn is well known to locals and tourists. With its distinctive Tudor frontage, deep open fires and paddocks round the back, overlooking the stream, it doubled as the Babberton Arms in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and has appeared in numerous other TV series and movies. It’s also, up until 2014, been in the same hands for the last 60 years. But, after the Levis family finally hung up their apron strings last January, and a brief empty spell, the Sign is under new ownership.
It’s had a complete refurbishment and, alongside its invigorated image, the kitchen’s had a shake up too, thanks to entrepreneurial new owners (and brothers) Tom and Jack Nicholas. Now offering the best seasonal, local produce, their kitchen team (under head chef Jon Furby’s leadership) have created a succinct menu of rustic, modern British favourites with a twist. From warm mackerel rarebit (£7) to honey roasted gammon with green beans, bubble and squeak cake, and a peppercorn sauce (£17), it’s the sort of grub that the term ‘comfort food’ was designed for. On my first visit, just before Christmas, I tucked into hunter’s stew and dumplings. My hips are still angry at me now. (But whoever let a thing like lovehandles get in the way of a good meal? Not me.)
And so it was with a stretchy waistband, hungry heart, and bottomless pit of a companion that I returned. Perched in front of a huge inglenook fireplace, we looked through the menu. And, while we toyed between the a la carte and specials, Tom himself (young, handsome, charming – no appeal there) brought out a sharing platter of freshly baked breads (watercress and walnut, and curry and coriander), soft butter, oil and balsamic vinegar – plus a mouthful each of seared duck breast with puréed carrot and swede. Perfectly seasoned, it had a pronounced hum of ginger.
He (let’s call him Bonnie Tyler – a fan of car-eoke and women of the ’80s) called dibs on the cauliflower and spinach raviolo with Wiltshire Cheddar sauce (£7) to start with proper. It’s a light and Italian take on that midweek favourite, cauli cheese, with the softest hankerchief of pasta enveloping iron-rich spinach, and a blanket of poky cheese sauce and caramelized florets. It could have sent me into a soporific trance had it not been for the special of chilli and lime marinated squid (£7.50) rudely awaking my tastebuds. With spicy, zingy lime juice battling for space on the plate with rich pan-juices and tangled curls of the squid, it was fresh and light. And it went exceptionally well with our wine choice, too. Indeed it’s an impressively affordable, well-selected list. We bagged a Kleine Zalze Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch for only £18.50.
With more charming staff clearing our plates, we eagerly awaited our mains. But first, a palate cleanser – berry and Pimms sorbet.
The specials had tempted me again, this time a roasted saddle of rabbit (£18.50). Surprisingly succulent and filled with a mellow combo of spinach and garlic, it was perfectly set off by a colourful plate of heritage beets, carrots and potatoes, and a sweet wine and rabbit reduction. Elegant but hearty.
Bonnie T cursed my superior decision-making as he tucked into the baked tenderloin of pork (£16.50), wrapped in local bacon and stuffed with pear and Bath cheese. Staying true to its tender name, it was a bit too subtle in flavour for him – though that didn’t stop me trying to nick some of his kale, dressed in a perfectly balanced cider sauce. (Well, these hips won’t feed themselves.)
And it was with such greed in mind that we ordered desserts and a cheese board. Bonnie T stuffed his face with a trio of chocolate – white chocolate crème brûlée, white chocolate and raspberry tart, and milk chocolate and pistachio ice cream – which would have made me envious if I hadn’t had my own toffee apple crumble.
Turns out, you don’t always need a magic wand for a great restaurant: just a good location, the right team and a chef that knows his onions.