There’s a crispy, cheesy, fruity fried dome and a berg-like mountain of cherry-baked Alaska plus more finger-licking delights at this wonder of a Warwickshire pub, finds CHARLIE LYON
Heigh-ho! Heigh-ho! It’s off to Warwickshire we go. Me at the wheel; Navigator armed with TomTom. Destination: The Howard Arms, Ilmington, ETA 2pm. Despite the upcoming Easter break the roads are clear, we make good time, we’re beating TomTom… Then it all breaks down at Ilmington. The north Cotswolds village is awash with road closure signs, so many they dot the edge of the area The Howard Arms sits in.
We’re tired of arguing with TomTom. “Turn left,” it insists. “We can’t,” we retort. There’s a pause. “Turn left.” We drive on, only to meet another closed road. “Turn left.”
Eventually we find ourselves gingerly edging up one of the off-limits roads, two wheels on the hedgerow to inch past a steamroller. It’s tense, but it’s all part of reporting on this countryside patch, and today the reward for our persistence couldn’t be better.
The Howard Arms is a beautiful pub in the heart of Warwickshire. It was taken over by new owners in June last year, and is now under the control of general manager Rob Jeal and head chef Gareth Rufus. It was refurbished at the start of the year, and has since gained its first AA rosette.
Manager Rob is a nice guy; in fact, all of the staff are amiable and attentive. It’s Rob’s day off, but he’s still poking around – he cares a lot, and you can tell the pub pays off because of it.
The interiors here are beautiful – oldy-worldy, but with a modern twist. Builders knocked down a wall to open up the cosy bar into the dining room, which is eclectic and dotted with old-school artwork, vintage finds, mismatched wood and a stately dresser filled with pretty ceramics.
Rob comes to say hello. “You should definitely try the scallops,” he recommends, his face beaming with excitement at the thought of the shellfish. “And get the pork for mains. Or the stonebass. And the ice creams – we make them here. You must try them.”
I pick the scallops for £8.50, while Navigator chooses the panko and chive panne goat’s cheese crotin with honey fig, watercress and Cumberland sauce (£6.50).
Rob pops back. “And what are you having, then?”
“The scallops and the pork,” I say. He looks happy.
Rob is right. The seared scallops are large and plump and sweet and juicy, lazing on artichoke beds plumped with celeriac purée. There’s a sprinkling of Julienne apple – not too much, not too little – and a scattering of perfectly crisp and salty chorizo cubes.
N’s crotin appears to be a huge, domey kiev of cheese. It looks delicious. Despite the size, she journeys through it quickly.
Rob was right about the mains, too. My smart squares of braised pork belly (£16.50) are meltingly moreish, with thin, crisp lids; the roast fillet is tender and wholesome. There’s apple (of course) and sweet potato, and a healthy helping of pease pudding that harks to a bygone era at the pub.
Across the way, N is easily finding her way around a lighter stonebass fillet (£13.50), pan-fried to perfection with ratatouille, purple sprouting broccoli and sorrel veloute. There are polenta chips too, deep-fried – surely the only treatment of polenta that can provoke pleasure in a diner? It’s all just right, even perfect. We’re so satisfied, and with our top jean buttons still proudly done up too. Do we have to go and spoil it? “But dinner doesn’t feel done ’til you have a pud,” pipes up N. So on we travel through the menu, offroad, free from Rob’s recommendations.
I have eyes for nothing else when there’s toffee pudding (£6) listed. This one has banana too (hello, fruit!), with butterscotch sauce and clotted cream. Always on an adventure, N has her sights set on Alaska – this time of the cherry baked kind (£6.50). Yep, both puddings are pitch perfect.
Could it be that everything on this menu is good? You should definitely heigh-ho your way to Ilmington to find out.
The Howard Arms, Ilmington, Shipston-on-Stour CV36 4LT; 01608 682226; howardarms.com