The Blackbird

A34, Bagnor, Newbury, RG20 8AQ, United Kingdom

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This country pub restaurant opened in its current form in October 2017 in Bagnor, near Newbury in Berkshire. Its chef/owner is Dom Robinson, who worked at The Prince of Wales and Trinity, was for over two years head chef of the former Tom Aikens restaurant in Chelsea, and more recently has worked in Dubai. His wife works in the front of house for the restaurant. The pub itself is tucked away a few miles off the M4, in an area with some history of destination dining, such as the nearby Vineyard at Stockcross. The pub has simple décor, split into a bar area and a dining room to one side. Mr Robinson works wth just one junior chef and a kitchen porter to help him. 

The wine list had around three-dozen offerings from £22 to £95, with a median price of £39 and a reasonable average markup of 3.1 times retail price. About half the list is French, but there were wines from as far afield as Brazil and Switzerland too. Sample labels were New Hall Classic White Pinot 2015 at £28 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £10, Bourgogne Aligoté 2014 from Domaine Taupenot-Merme at £40 compared to its retail price of £12, and Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir 2013 at £90 for a wine that will set you back £31 in a shop. Alternatively, corkage was a modest £15.

The soda bread is made daily; soda bread is popular with kitchens that do not have access to a specialist pastry chef, as it is simpler to make than conventional yeast-based bread. The version here was unusually good, with excellent texture (14/20). A starter of Dorset crab came with pistachio and new season French asparagus. The asparagus had excellent flavour and the crab tasted good, though a bit of shell had eluded the kitchen. The pistachio was an interesting additional touch (14/20). Beef tartare was very enjoyable, using chopped fillet of beef mixed with pickled salsify, toasted pine nuts and Cabernet vinegar. The sourness from the vinegar was an excellent foil for the meat, the beef was not chopped too finely and had good flavour, and the nuts added another textural layer. The beef itself had excellent flavour, from a local supplier called Vicar’s Game (15/20).

Halibut came with creamed leeks, fried leek strands and new potatoes and rested in a sauce Veronique, a classic butter sauce flavoured with vermouth, tarragon and Muscat grapes. The fish was accurately cooked and the sauce worked well, the leeks and potatoes also carefully prepared (14/20). 

Cauliflower risotto was made using Acquarello,  a top quality brand of aged carnaroli rice. A vegetable stock and crème fraiche emulsion was used to cook the rice rather than chicken stock, so to give richness the kitchen added a port reduction, and also a little luxury through the use of truffles. These were Italian bianchetti truffles (tuber albidum pico, or white spring truffles). The rice was a little on the al dente side to my taste, though the port reduction worked well to give richness to the dish, and the cauliflower was fine (13/20). 

Chocolate and hazelnut marquise came with griottines and cherry ripple ice cream. This was excellent, the marquise having silky texture and rich flavour, the acidity of the cherries nicely balancing the richness of the chocolate (15/20). Rum baba was a variation on the classic, here with rum and raisin ice cream as the filling, with the traditional crème Chantilly on the side. The bread base avoided the drying out that can so easily afflict this dish, and the ice cream worked well (14/20).  Coffee was from Waitrose and was pretty basic. Apparently a new coffee machine and supplier is about to be brought in.

The bill, including corkage, came to £47 a head before tip (which is not included on the bill here here), and that seems to me a bargain for cooking of this quality. If you shared a modest bottle of wine and had three courses and coffee then a typical cost per head might be £70 with a tip. The Blackbird offers food that is much more elaborate than a regular pub, yet at a not unreasonable price point. It is still quite early days for the place, and I hope that it prospers, as this is the kind of ambitious, independent restaurant that the UK needs more of when its high streets are full of disappointing chain restaurants.


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