The Red Lion, Stathern

October 7, 2015

My recent review of The Red Lion, Stathern, for Leicester Mercury:

There was a fair degree of concern in North-East Leicestershire last year when it looked like this much-lauded pub was going to be sold off. A long-term holder of Michelin’s Bib Gourmand for good food at moderate prices, it regularly featured in the smart papers as one of the nation’s top country pubs and picked up awards such as Leicestershire Dining Pub of the Year 2015 in the Good Pub Guide.

The sale never quite happened. Co-owners Sean Hope and Ben Jones did however withdraw from active management to concentrate on their other venue, the equally celebrated Olive Branch in Clipsham, Rutland. It would now be run by the returning Mark Barbour, who had been general manager from 2002 to 2006. There was a change in the kitchen too with new head chef Luke McGowan taking over. It seemed the place remains in good hands, and the Dining Pub of the Year gong was recently re-awarded for 2016. On the day of our visit, however, it was announced it had lost the Bib Gourmand (the tyre people don’t like change or uncertainty).

So was there evidence of eyes being taken off the ball? No – this remains a completely delightful dining pub with excellent cooking and competent, relaxed service.

It doesn’t actually look all that when you arrive. But its fairly nondescript outside hides a cosy but not twee interior of beams and yellow plaster. There’s a welcoming bar with good selection of draught beers – the light, golden Red Lion Ale is made for them by Grainstore in Oakham – rustic wooden tables and, in an apparent search for quirky, Leicestershire’s finest collection of colanders on the wall.

The menu is printed out daily on a simple piece of paper and ranges from fish finger sandwiches through to smart though not overblown dishes such as crab and crayfish risotto or blade of beef with girolles and truffle sauce. There’s a “Dine for Less” menu with three courses for £17.50 which looks a compelling offer but this time time we went à la carte.

Top marks for a little loaf of toasted pumpkin seed bread with a lovely open texture and soft crust with orange and thyme butter. Choosing a starter was a simple affair once I saw a listing for partridge with damsons and chorizo. The bird’s breast was perfectly roasted, while in effective contrast the leg had been neatly pared, crumbed and fried. With bang-on seasonality the meat was paired with sweetened, poached local damsons. I was slightly nervous about the chorizo and it was a bit too powerful – it didn’t ruin it but it just felt a bit of a Mediterranean intruder on a gentle, autumnal British plate.

Goats cheese panna cotta was strongly-flavoured and, pleasingly, had a bit more texture than the smooth desert version. With its ideal partner beetroot, this time in ketchup form, and a salad with pea shoots and pak choi, it was a great lunchtime starter.

We both chose fish for main courses – both were perfectly cooked with a crisp skin and yielding white flesh, but in ways which maintained the characteristics of the fish. Sea bass was soft and delicate and came with fresh egg linguini, doused in a simple veloute sauce with tiny brown shrimp, fresh peas left al dente and copious chives. The firmer, meatier hake fillet was matched with an appropriately rich gravy made with roast chicken and the dish also featured retro little balls of breaded scampi, charred leeks and superb “crispy potato” – a slice of thinly-layered potato cake cooked in butter to give a satisfying crunch.

These were dishes that wear their high quality lightly – uncomplicated but well thought out, with fine ingredients and good cooking throughout. With a glass of superb Chilean sauvignon blanc from Casas del Bosque, which was on a par with celebrated New Zealand expressions of this grape, this was a fine lunch.

For desert a super-rich chocolate and amaretti mousse gateaux impressed with shards of white and dark chocolate, a quenelle of light chantilly and smooth, refreshing orange sorbet.

The food may be exceptional but this is a village pub and you might find live music on a Sunday, take-away fish and chips on a Friday for locals and other proper pub things. It’s good to report on a down-to-earth Leicestershire classic on good form.

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