Ye Olde Bell is in a seriously old building dating back to 1135, though fortunately they have updated the plumbing since then. What is impressive is that the place has been in the hospitality business that entire time, originally as a guest house to visitors to the nearby Benedictine Priory, later as a coaching inn. King Henry IV visited, just after deposing and imprisoning his cousin Richard II and so grabbing the throne in 1399. There is even a secret passage from the cellar of the inn to a nearby (now demolished) mansion. Winston Churchill and Eisenhower met here in 1944, so the place does not lack for history.
The hotel has a very large garden with additional seating for clement weather. At the end is an area planted out in country meadow style, and there is a plan for an outdoor table amongst the trees. There is also an outdoor rotisserie and bar. More interestingly for me, there is a partly finished vegetable garden growing herbs and soon a range of crops which will be used in the kitchen. The dining room has been sensitively updated, retaining a sense of history e.g. some of the display plates have scenes of local folklore.
Executive chef Warren Geraghty has been here since November 2010, following stints at West in Vancouver, two years as executive chef of l’Escargot and three years as head chef of Richard Neat’s restaurant in Cannes. The head chef at Ye Olde Bell at the time of my visit was James Ferguson, who was head chef of Rochelle Canteen and trained under Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. The menu is firmly British, with an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients. There was a set three course lunch menu for £16.50, while from the à la carte menu starters ranged from £4.95 to £9.20, mains £14.80 to £18.20 with vegetables on the side mostly at an extra £3.50. Desserts were £6 to £6.50.
The wine list had fairly broad international coverage, starting at £16.50 and with wines such as Framingham Sauvignon Blanc 2010 at £30 for a wine that costs £12 in the shops, Gramenon Sierra del Sud Cotes du Rhone 2008 at £50 for a wine you can buy for around £17, up to more classic wines such as Cuvee Frederich Emile 1996 at £136 for a wine that retails at around £54. We drank Au Bon Climat Chardonay 2008 at £51 for a wine that costs £17 retail. In general mark-ups seemed acceptable though hardly generous.
Bread was made from scratch, slices of white and brown bread, which were clearly fresh and having pleasant texture (14/20). My starter was scallops with cauliflower. The scallops were from Brixham in Devon and delivered live (many restaurants in the UK end up using scallops that are far from snappy fresh) by "The Really Interesting Crab Company", who have their own boats, to the restaurant. The scallops were lightly seared, served with nicely cooked cauliflower and sea purslane; I could have done with more seasoning, but this was a nice way to start the meal (14/20).
My main course of chicken, though from a local farm, was cooked correctly but lacked much real chicken taste, while the chicken jus with it was also quite thin and lacking in depth of flavour (12/20). Once again bolder seasoning would have helped, but with the cooking here seeming to be deliberately low key in terms of presentation and number of elements, there is nowhere to hide if the ingredients are merely ordinary. The chicken was served with braised gem lettuce and black garlic mayonnaise. I did enjoy the in-season Jersey Royals, which again lacked seasoning but were of high quality and accurately cooked (15/20).
My chocolate dessert used a Belgian chocolate I am unfamiliar with, but this had quite good, rich taste, topped with caramelised walnuts, the parfait having smooth texture (14/20). Coffee could be better, being rather lacking in flavour in my opinion.
Overall this was a pleasant meal in a very pretty setting, and the kitchen here is clearly making some effort to use good ingredients, and will soon have access to home-grown vegetables.
@SimonMajumdar I can well believe that.