There's a mouse! And another! Look hard enough and you'll find that the bar area is infested with rodents. They're all wooden, of course, English oak as it happens, courtesy of craftsmen at the Robert "Mouseman" Thompson workshop in Kilburn.
Bespoke English oak bar furniture doesn't come cheap, that's for sure. But it is individual touches like this that marks out this place from so many other country dining pubs. It has character – saddlebags full of it – despite its relatively recent appearance on the Dales dining scene. The former 17th century coaching inn was gutted and refurbished in 2006 by Charles and Stacy Cody, owners of the Charles Bathurst Inn in neighbouring Arkengarthdale. The Punch Bowl now serves a similar clientele to that of The CB – weekenders, walkers, well-heeled second-homers… First-homers too, if they can get in. This isn't a place to turn up on spec on a Friday night and expect to nab your favourite table. Or indeed any table.
The long, flat-fronted stone building is set back and elevated from the main road through the valley, the market town of Reeth to the east and Kirby Stephen to the west. Look out for the giant-sized punch bowl perched on a wrought iron bracket, beneath which swings a more nondescript black and white pub sign. A handful of slatted wooden picnic benches are set out in front. The view from here across the valley is pure Swaledale: a patchwork of fields littered with stone barns, like mini cottages with their own acreage of land. Come early during the summer and you might just catch a few rays of early evening sun.
Inside, the wooden floors have been sanded and varnished. Enough to smooth away the splinters but without rubbing away the building's historic past. The eating area is stretched out in two directions. To the right, it extends past the long bar to a cluster of leather seats, a wood-burning stove and the mirror menu – more of which in a minute. To the left more rough-hewn tables and wooden chairs are spread out in two adjoining dining rooms.
The dcor breathes a slightly chalky, understated classiness. The walls have been painted in those muted heritage shades that tend to have names like dead pigeon, wilted nettle or Percival's white. The light fittings are wrought iron, there is a stone-flanked open fireplace waiting for the chills of autumn and winter, and on the wall is a large vintage-type station clock. We are not watching the time, though. Far better to savour the view through the bank of broad sash windows.
There is just one menu to go round. It is daubed in white on two wooden framed mirrors at the far end of the bar area. Interesting idea, although depending on the time of day and the angle of the lights, it can be slightly difficult to read some of the main courses.
We're seated in the furthest dining room so it's a short hike up to the mirror and back to see what's on offer. This is swiftly followed by a second trek to confirm some of the details of the dishes, though the second trip has to be taken anyway; orders are taken at the bar.
Of the half dozen or so starters I opt for a light-sounding platter of local asparagus with smoked trout and salmon mousse. Heartier, meatier options are on offer but I'm keen to see through the whole three courses. The asparagus itself is unfortunately a disappointment – the spears are thin and limp, splaying into fibres when cut. The anorexic spears have clearly spent too many minutes in the steamer when a waft past the kettle would have sufficed. The mousse, however is magnificent. Mackerel fillet and spicy lentils looks to be a far better choice. This is a robust combination of flavours and there is more than a dash of something hot and feisty to fire up the pulses. This might be a 17th century inn but neither main is stuck in the traditional meat and two veg mould.
Supreme of chicken comes with du Puy lentils, sweet potato puree and a shallot sauce. Lamb loin is accompanied by black pudding, borlotti beans and pea puree. This time the chef's timings are spot on and in each case, the meat is succulent and moist. We take differing directions for the finale. I'm still erring towards the summery side of the menu and go for the lemon tart with lemon sorbet. It's fresh, it's tangy, it's lemony. It's delicious. The cheese platter offers some of the finest cheeses the northern Dales have to offer: one hard, one ewe's milk, one blue. A stack of savoury biscuits, a small dish of chutney and a bunch-let of seedless grapes complete the ensemble.
Asparagus aside – and I'm willing to forgive a minor slip-up – The Punch Bowl is serving up everything you would expect from a discerning country inn. The cuisine is also startlingly good value. Although our bill for the meal came to just under 75, this bottom line figure drops dramatically once you subtract the drinks. Starters are sub-6, mains around the 13/14.50 mark, and desserts are 4.95 (5.50 for the cheese platter).
The Punch Bowl might have started life as understudy to The CB but this younger sister restaurant now arguably has the edge over its elder sibling.
Punch Bowl Inn, Low Row, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL11 8PF. Tel: 01748 886 233. www.pbinn.co.uk
YP MAG 7/8/10