Without good food, it is difficult to see how a village pub like the Buck Inn could flourish, or even survive.
There’s a dead end sign on the road into Maunby in the gentle North Yorkshire backwaters between the A1 and the A19. No passing trade here. And the Theakston-branded pub signs that help you on your final approach don’t seem to have changed in years and suggest a time-warp boozer rather than a cutting-edge venue.
Not so. Since head chef Matthew Roath and partner Sammy Clark moved in and spruced up a couple of years ago the Buck has built a growing reputation on the back of its good food. The nibbles – olives, nuts, deep fried whitebait – and the bar meals, such as steak burger, Cheddar rarebit and smoked haddock fish cake, all served in a spacious, low-beamed bar warmed by two fires, are distinctive enough to have made it the Yorkshire Post pub of the week. And its full-blown meals more than match up.
Sammy looks after front-of-house. She’s briskly efficient. The deal on a Saturday night is a drink in the atmospheric bar but not ordered or served at the bar – “We’ll bring it to you”. Menus are brought and orders taken (with the intriguing promise of a “gesture” of vegetables) before we are ushered into the dining area.
Here, two spacious, carpeted rooms with thick brocade drapes are more suburban bungalow. A Hits of the 1960s on the sound system treated us or rather tortured us with Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Ferry Cross the Mersey and the New Seekers’ Carnival is Over. But starched white linen tablecloths and proper napkins, water on the table, home-baked bread and home-made hummus were reassuring of underlying professionalism.
Potted brown shrimps come on a board in the ubiquitous mini Kilner jar, with spelt and rye toast and salad in the equally ubiquitous mini pan. It’s good: well-seasoned shrimps with a satisfying hit of nutmeg, chewy toast and well-dressed leaves spiked with shards of Serrano ham.
And it’s an early reminder that Roath earned his spurs in significant kitchens at the Bay Horse, Hurworth, Chadwick’s at Maltby and at the double Michelin-starred Midsummer House, Cambridge, whose elegant riverside window I once peered through before being terrified by the prices (they have a tasting menu at £105.)
Anyway, for a second starter Roath briefly sears his wood pigeon, slices it and serves it pink with cubes of black pudding, adding a touch of sweetness from a couple of pickled grapes. It’s all smartly done, although a bit more pigeon and a bit less pudding would have better evened out the balance.
The steak, a 28-day hung job from Neasham Grange, Darlington, is all you can ask of a slab of sirloin: thick and juicy with two discs of just melting garlic butter. A stack of homemade onion rings and a pan of crispy, chunky beef dripping chips that Heston Blumenthal would be proud of come straight from the textbook. And if steak and chips is the staple that no self-respecting gastro-publican would dare leave off his menu, then hake with oxtail is the wild card.
Who’d have thought that fish and meat could be such a winning combination? The Spanish of course, who have long had a love of hake and have been cooking oxtail since Roman times. Rubo de toro – the trophy bull’s tail presented to the picador at the end of a bullfight – was traditionally made into a luxurious stew to be served in the bars around the bullring. British oxtails come from regular beef cattle. That these unappealing, gristly, boney pieces can, when cooked long and slow, be transformed into a glutinous, glossy, tender stew is one of cooking’s minor miracles.
Roath’s dish begins with a base of silken smooth celeriac puree, topped with cabbage. Around it are cubes of potato and the shreds of the sticky, slow-cooked oxtail and its rich juices. It’s topped with a generous fillet of hake that adds a wholesome freshness in contrast to the rich juices of the meat. Alongside in a pan is what we conclude is the promised “gesture” of vegetables, an agreeable green combo of cabbage, broccoli and new potatoes tossed in mint butter. The whole package was excellent, going on inspired.
At dessert crème brûlée, topped with new season Yorkshire forced rhubarb and a scattering of crumble crumbs and sorrel leaves, makes for a new take on an old friend. An elegant slice of treacle tart comes with ice cream and candied lemon. Beside the tart, another mini Kilner jar contains macerated cherries and cream.
As the bill arrives, those 1960s hits intrude with Herman’s Hermits I’m into Something Good. And we had, reminding us that we can now enjoy a plethora of good dining pubs in North Yorkshire as the norm.
Clearly it’s the turnover from the restaurant that keeps such village pubs alive, even flourishing. The Buck has got the balance just about right. More power to their elbows.
• The Buck Inn, Maunby, Thirsk YO7 4HD, 01845 587777, www.thebuckinnmaunby.co.uk. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 12-2pm & 5-9.30pm (Saturday opening 6pm); Sunday, 12-4pm. Price: approx £30pp plus coffee, wine and service.