There is a well trodden path to the Punch Bowl Inn at Marton cum Grafton, most of it created by me. I have been visiting the inn for many years and have watched it veer from sublime to downright diabolical. I cringed when the Fox-Morrisey media frenzy swamped the pub with celeb-watchers and breathed a sigh of relief when their circus left town.
The Punch Bowl sank once again into mediocrity and eventually financial ruin despite managers and eventually new owners desperately trying to breathe life into the exhausted inn. I have always been stumped at why such a lovely building, in a fabulously beautiful village within reach of Harrogate, York and the wealth of North Yorkshire seems, but for a few owners, to fail so spectacularly. Was it possible that the place was doomed?
Little more than two months ago rumour reached me that rescue was once again on the way, this time in the form of the dynamic duo that is Ibbotson and Blundell. Their company Provenance Inns has had many column inches in the press about their mission to revive the village inn; suffice to say, I felt a flicker of excitement. Could this finally mean success for the Punch Bowl?
Three weeks from signing the contracts, the Punch Bowl was again open with staff in place, menus written and a major refurbishment undertaken. I was tempted to hotfoot it over there the first day, but with respect, I waited for a week and found the place heaving on a Thursday night in November, a bit of a rarity these days. The bar space had been opened up and was packed. I loved that this was a proper bar without a knife and fork in sight, only happy drinkers.
There are several dining rooms spread throughout the inn, all united in the deep rich red walls, wooden floors, simply dressed tables and all with roaring fires. Some are small and intimate, none too large or boisterous and encouragingly, at 6.45pm, diners in every one.
There is much in the menu at Punch Bowl that reminds me of the other pubs in the Provenance stable – The Durham Ox, the Carpenters Arms, The Oak Tree – with the large A3 menu boasting a whole range of dishes. They reach from small and manageable prawn cocktails, fishcakes and scallops, through to robust sticky ribs, char-grilled steaks and rotisserie spit roasts. Prices are keen but not unacceptable if they have the quality right. As this was before 7pm there is an extra treat of a “7 dishes for 7 pounds before 7pm” which with offerings of fish and chips, gammon and eggs, bangers and mash and more are all very tempting at that price. There are also Daily Blackboard specials. Phew.
After much deliberation, we decided upon quail, with poached egg and cubes of fruity-spicy black pudding and pan-fried wood pigeon with a fricasée of wild mushrooms on focaccia bread. Both showed great skill from the kitchen with a carefully crafted blend of tastes and textures. There was little reason to ask if we had enjoyed them, the plates went back to the kitchen wiped clean.
An unusual offering of the Punch Bowl Chicken “Shawarma” Platter almost begged to be ordered given that it seemed slightly askew on what is essentially a traditionally British menu. The dish is from the new rotisserie spit and comes as spiced, marinated chicken with char-grilled flat bread and mezze portions of hummus, tzatziki and garlic aioli.
The Asian-style dish then surprisingly comes with side dishes of thyme roasted potatoes and a choice of Punch Bowl salad – either classic Caesar, Italian panzanella or a classic garden.
Despite each component of the dish being bang on in every respect, the eclectic mix made it just a little confusing. A fresh simple mint-herb salad on the side would have sufficed and be much more in keeping with the origins of the dish.
If I had a niggle with the Shawarma (and it was only tiny) the pan-fried monkfish with sauté new potatoes, chorizo, cherry tomatoes and spinach, I most certainly did not. Each piece of fish was a baby fist-sized chunk, perfectly grilled, soft and tender. The chorizo was fine and needed to be there but was a tiny bit on the hard side – though to be honest it is very easy to overcook. Otherwise, this was an excellent dish. Puddings were just as expected with appearances from sticky toffee, crème brulée, chocolate marquise et al but tucked away at the end of the list was an affogato, which is simply vanilla ice cream and a hot espresso. It is a delightful dessert, perfect at the end of a rich meal and fun to watch as the hot coffee seeps down the glass and mixes with the slowly melting ice cream.
My verdict? A splendid meal with exemplary service. Provenance Inns have nailed all that this now gorgeous Inn should be and it seems they have charmed the villagers into the bargain too.
The Punch Bowl Inn, Marton Cum Grafton, York, YO51 9QY Tel: 01423 322519. Pub Opening Times: Mon-Thurs 12noon-3pm, 5pm-11pm; Fri, Sat & Sun, All day from noon; Sundays until 10.30pm. Food Service Times: Mon-Sat, 12noon-2.30pm, 5.30pm-9.30pm; Sundays 12noon-3pm, 5.30pm-8.30pm.