The Inn at South Stainley is a pleasant gastropub, without quite firing on all cylinders.
It used to be the Red Lion, a ‘family-friendly’ pub with a Wacky Warehouse play centre and a car park the size of a field. This nondescript mock-Tudor roadhouse on the A61 between Harrogate and Ripon was the sort of place most food lovers would drive past and keep on driving.
But Joycelyn Neve of the Seafood Pub Company saw its potential, and last year chucked £1.5 million at it and renamed it the Inn at South Stainley, a name more in keeping with its aspirations as a gastropub.
It has all the right livery for a sensible upgrade; dark grey panelling, polished wood floors, Turkish rugs, leather banquettes, easy chairs, a gleaming bar and a wood burning stove, throwing out a warm welcome on a chilly winter lunchtime.
And you can stay. They’ve created 12 glamorous bedrooms, four in the main building and eight in lodges in the grounds, dog-friendly with gun cupboards and facilities for shoots. In what sounds like a remarkably good deal they offer a free night’s stay if you spend over £100 on food in the restaurant. That’s one way of keeping the customers from heading off into Harrogate or Ripon.
All this is familiar ground for Neve who is clearly a rising force in the industry. She was only 25 when she founded the Seafood Pub Company in 2010, transforming her first pub, the Oyster and Otter in Blackburn, ‘dingy’ by her own description, into a welcoming place with ‘food and drink at its heart and soul.’
Since then the company have taken on nine such pubs in Lancashire and two in Yorkshire and she’s been equally busy collecting a host of awards.
Neve comes from a fishing dynasty. Her great-grandfather and grandfather were both trawlermen, and her father Chris Neve is a Fleetwood fish merchant, the self-styled ‘Codfather’, so fish and seafood was the obvious direction for her fleet of pubs with Dad supplying it.
The Inn’s fish special menu covers quite a range: sardines, squid, soft shell crab, hake, halibut and monkfish with more fish dishes on the à la carte.
It’s not just fish. The expansive menu fills two sides of A4, spanning the world’s cuisines: Goan curry, Persian spiced chicken; crispy duck pancakes with hoisin sauce; burger and chips; tikka spiced sardines; pizza. And much, much more.
I’m already thinking too much choice. How can a kitchen that is not relying on prepared items from a wholesaler really manage four snacks, 15 starters, 11 mains, three platters, a rump, ribeye or fillet steak, half a dozen pizzas and eight desserts plus six fish specials?
The first test came via the fish menu with a satisfying baby squid, the tubes filled with a smooth, rich umami stuffing of cockle, leek and smoked bacon. The tentacles were crisp and fresh from the deep fat fryer with a slick of toothsome celeriac puree to bring it all together. A coherent, well-balanced plate that would hold its own in any restaurant or gastropub with aspirations.
Tikka spiced sardines and spiced potato cake with a pool of cumin yoghurt, were pleasing enough though the spicing was way too timid. Similarly the hake. It was a generous piece of fish but the genteel papaya and chilli salad dressed with coconut and lime, was so mild it barely registered.
The priciest and best dish at £21.50 was halibut, a real beauty of snowy white flesh, sweet and flaking with a well crisped skin, served with a party of plump mussels, a wedge of fennel, braised to aniseedy tenderness and a heap of wild mushrooms for a final earthy kick.
At dessert, the dark chocolate fondant with honeycomb and salted caramel ice cream did a decent job, delivering a suitably runny fondant and good quality ice cream but then it all fell apart with the apple, plum and cinnamon crumble. A few cubes of apple, lost in a jammy goo topped with a scattering of crumbs. Not a crumble at all, which is all about the ratio of crumble to fruit and we all know which is the best bit. Even ‘proper custard’ failed to rescue this dish.
If you know North Yorkshire’s Provenance Inn chain, which has refurbished seven pubs into reliable gastropubs, then you’ll have a starting feel for the Inn at South Stainley. Such chains have to be formulaic to a certain extent and when there’s 56 items on the menu, don’t expect too much of an individual signature from the chef.
What is commendable, however, is that baseline of reliability. It’s a pleasant venue, the service was good and we enjoyed enough of our meal at the right sort of price to make it a fair deal. And when confronted with the relentless closure of the nation’s pubs – a quarter gone since 2000 – one can only be pleased at this revival.
* The Inn at South Stainley, Ripon Road, South Stainley, Harrogate HG3 3ND. Tel: 01423 779060; www.innatstainley.co.uk
* Open: Mon-Thur noon-9pm. Friday noon-10pm. Sunday 11am-8.30pm
* Price: Dinner for two including bottle wine, coffee and service approx. £85.