The Bruce Arms, West Tanfield: A good put with great food and a stones throw from Thornborough Henges
The plan was to visit the Thornborough Henges, the three Neolithic mounds near Ripon built 4,500 years ago, as ceremonial or ritual centres and recently gifted to the nation. According to English Heritage who now look after them, they are “the most important concentration of Neolithic monuments in the north of England”.
But priorities… first lunch. The Bruce Arms at West Tanfield is just a mile from the henges so it was the obvious place to meet one Sunday for lunch with friends.
The menu looked promising. Three courses and half a dozen choices at each course. I’m not the only one in this paper and beyond to moan about the fashion for no-choice, tasting menus. The Good Food Guide (www.thegoodfoodguide.co.uk) recently got into a debate about whether they are an opportunity for a chef to show what he/she can do or an ordeal to endure.
I’m too familiar with the ordeal. No dinner should take more than two hours or be constantly interrupted by a recitation of ingredients at breakneck pace. Small plates too are getting tedious when four of you are obliged to share three meatballs. Don’t get me started.
But chefs are digging in, of the 12 restaurants I reviewed for this newspaper last year, not one of them offered a traditional three-course meal. They were either small plates to share or a tasting menu. What a relief then to visit a pub, the last bastion of the à la carte.
I arrive half an hour early for our booking. ‘No problem’ said Matt Barnett, the landlord of the Bruce Arms. ‘Look, this seat’s got your name on it’ welcoming me to a stool at the bar and while I waited for the others, he brought me a drink and a menu.
Simple you might think but the straightforward act of welcoming customers, sorting tables, bringing water, menus and drinks, is rarely plain sailing. When was the last time someone offered to take your coat? At last it felt as if someone was in charge.
This being Sunday the menu was based around a roast dinner, but there were more choices beyond the roast. For starters one of our party went for a vegan dish of honey roast parsnips, with a parsnip and vanilla puree and a heap of paprika crisps, reported to be very good. Someone else had a perfectly constructed Scotch egg: runny inside and topped with strips of crisp bacon. I was tempted by Carlingford oysters with shallot vinegar but who doesn’t like a prawn cocktail?
Three of us opted for the shredded lettuce, a pile of prawns in the famed Marie Rose sauce and a strip of gin-cured cucumber and served with pumpernickel. Nothing trail-blazing about it just a well-made, classic prawn cocktail.
The choice of mains included roast sirloin, roast chicken breast, roast pork and a vegan roast – sorry vegans, I forgot to ask for details. Three lovely slices of pork loin, served with crackling, puffy Yorkshire puddings, sausage meat stuffing, roast potatoes, a sweet potato mash and plenty of gravy. Good English roast meat, well-cooked and well presented.
Alternatives to roast included sea bass with caviar beurre blanc, a steak and Guinness pie and chips that one of our party got stuck into and another relished a dish he is rarely allowed to cook at home; liver and onions with mashed potato and gravy. And for the table, mixed green vegetables and red cabbage.
Puddings are all the comfort pub classics of sticky toffee with toffee sauce and ice cream, chocolate orange pot with pistachio and orange crumble, a rhubarb frangipane with stem ginger and ice cream and a perfectly executed affogato with piping hot espresso poured over ice cold ice cream.
Someone asked me the other day whether I judged a restaurant on food or place. Food always comes first but that doesn’t mean I require star-spangled, over-wrought dishes that I must be in awe of. There was nothing awesome here, just well-cooked food, good service in a pleasant setting, that’s what makes it for me.
Service was faultless. Orders were taken efficiently, water replenished, drinks served, food came out on time, but more than that, landlord Matt was watching everything, buzzing between tables, greeting customers, being nice to their children, being in control and generally being charming.
We were charmed too when, dawdling over coffee, he wandered over to enquire about our walk. He gave us some tips about the henges, how to get there and which ones were more easily seen. Then, as if the thought had suddenly occurred to him, dropped the hint that there were guests waiting for our table. It was an object lesson in how to move your customers on without making them feel they were being moved on.
We took the hint and made the easy one-mile stroll from the Bruce Arms to the henges or as they are being described, the Stonehenge of the North. That’s a sarsen stone too far for me but go see for yourself. Standing in a windswept field in the middle of Yorkshire looking at a large, low circular hummock in the grass, it was hard to evoke the magic.
I recently heard someone define archeology was the study of ‘probably something, probably sometime’. Experts have dated these henges as probably late Neolithic or early Bronze Age and probably used for celebrations and feasting.
They would probably have stood five feet high and covered in snow-white gypsum that could be seen from afar. Now that would have been a thrill.
As it is, I can only admit to a modest buzz in walking in the footsteps of our Neolithic ancestors and to accept that it’s all a mystery. I’m glad they’ve been saved for the nation. I’m glad to have seen them and I’m also glad there is a rather good pub round the corner.
The Bruce Arms, 2 Main Street, West Tanfield, Ripon HG4 5JJ T: 01677 470325 www.thebrucearms.com