Hold the alchemy, put down the foam, at the Woolly Sheep Amanda Wragg finds honest pub food at its best.
Is there anything better than a good lunch in a proper old pub in a market town on market day? Come on, sometimes you’d swap the tasting menu in a starch-linened Michelin star-seeking temple to gastronomy for three proper courses.
This year I’ve eaten more minute portions on acres of white porcelain than you can shake a breadstick at. I recall one place in particular where the serving person recited his guide to what we were eating at the table. Each explanation lasted what felt like two minutes by which time the food had gone cold. We stopped at the chippy on the way home. There’s none of that malarkey at the Woolly Sheep.
It’s easy to miss, tucked away, tall and narrow. I’ve walked by a hundred times. But step off the hectic main street to a bit of a haven; it’s all flagged floors, fires and comfy chairs in the room at the front where I would happily sit for an hour or two with a pint, which was clearly the intention of a couple of immaculately linen-suited Panama-hatted elderly gents poring over their iPads.
Stroll through to the handsome old bar and you’ll realise the Sheep is a Tardis; beyond the bar is a comfortable dining room and beyond that a big sheltered beer garden – but you can eat anywhere. It’s that kind of place; few rules.
Manager Andrew Goodall is young and driven. He’s turned round more ailing pubs than you and I have had hot dinners. Well maybe you. His philosophy is “we’re a pub first” and I approve of that. But he’s brought in an ambitious chef, Thomas Robertson, who intends to make his mark and together they’re carefully fashioning a standard pub grub offer into something a few notches up. At first glance it looks like a menu in any pub in the land but a second scan reveals some subtle, clever touches; the ubiquitous grazing boards have a vegetarian option which includes pea and mint mousse, mozzarella croutons and tomato palmiers, and “From the Fields” has brawn and black pudding, a home made scotch egg and English salami. Braised lamb stew and dumplings appeals, as does whole roast quail. In other words, a menu full of things you actually want to eat.
There are some cheffy indulgences; dishes with “sous-vide” and “textures” in the title which he just about manages to get past me but I’m not sure about the farmers on the next table. Mind you they’re tucking into plates piled high with belly pork so I don’t imagine such fripperies concerned them too much.
That’s the great thing about this menu; all the usual suspects are present (fish and chips, burgers, bangers and mash) but alongside are the likes of smoked mackerel sous vide and the dreaded “textures of pea salad” which is actually a stunning plate of food, three shades of green and, er, textures to match; mousse, warm, crispy beignets and a puree. Who’d have thought about doing so many things with the humble pea? The mackerel is sweet and tender and the crunchy ham hock cakes a completely successful addition. If, unlike us, you’re on your minutes this dish would make a lovely quick lunch and it’s a give-away at £6.50.
In fact their ‘light bite’ offerings (all around the £7 mark) look terrific and I’m tempted to the home cooked ham and eggs (with hand cut dripping-cooked chips at £7.50) but I have a job to do on your behalf, so lamb rump it is.
Oh what a glorious plate of food. On top of a pile of crushed, earthy new potatoes sits perfectly cooked, pink lamb, as tender as you like. Scattered round, sautéed butternut squash, spindly wild mushrooms, blanched buttered spinach and a slick of truffle jus. I know, jus. I’ll let you off though, Robert, because it all works so well. A genius touch is black olive tapenade dotted hither and thither.
Pan fried cod is similarly pleasing as are the accompanying scallops which are huge, juicy and barely shown the pan. The caramelised cauliflower could have done with a tad longer and I couldn’t detect the horseradish in the salad. But I’m being picky, it’s a fine dish. The mash stood out; loaded with butter, flecked through with dill and smooth as wallpaper paste.
Service is friendly, unobtrusive and quick as fish. “Ready for pudding?” asks our smiling waitress. Oh yes. Key lime cheesecake with chocolate ice cream and a puddle of deep red berry coulis and two spoons. It’s every bit as good as it sounds. They know a thing or two about crowd-pleasing here. The style is robust with emphasis on flavour but presentation is impressive too. The appeal of the cooking lies in its simple honesty; here’s friendly food that does not overstrive, give or take the odd “jus” and “texture”.
• Woolly Sheep, 38 Sheep Street, Skipton BD23 1YH. 01756 700966, www.woollysheepinn.co.uk. Sandwiches from £6.50, light bites from £6.95, main courses from £9.95. Food served Sunday to Friday, 11.30am to 9pm, Saturday, 11.30am to 10pm.