By rights the Old Plough in Cobham should always have been one of the most popular pubs in the area as its location near the station and the shops in Stoke D’Abernon, and on the main road into Cobham from Leatherhead and beyond makes it probably the most visible pub in the vicinity. But in the 50 or so years I have lived in Cobham I have been in maybe 10 times for a drink and a couple of times for a meal. It’s always been the sort of place you went to on the way home from work …. rarely to return.
A couple of years ago the place closed – again – the scaffolding went up and after some serious building work, the place opened again, and for reasons which quickly became apparent instantly knocked every other restaurant and pub in the area for six.
We have been there now about 5 times, for bar snacks, lunch, Sunday Lunch and a couple of times in the evening.
And we went again last night … a party of 3. I have to say the experience was staggering. All three of us knock around restaurants quite a bit, and one of our number … a young French Grande Dame of 93, a former instantaneous translator who has translated for the likes of the Queen, President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to name a few, and who thus has travelled all around the world eating at the best restaurants as only the French know how, wondered out loud whether taken (strictly) as an overall package … food, ambience, service, location, quality of ingredients, presentation and last but not least, price … our experience last night did’nt count as one of the most memorable ‘eating experiences’ as the Americans would so colourfully call it, she’d had. Micheline is a fiery olde soul .. and not taken to making such comment without at least a few minutes reflection!
he place is run by some friends of Caroline’s and so she and I went there when it first opened for a lunchtime snack ‘to see’. We had a sandwich which came with a (good) soup. Sounds simple, but what a unusual idea, and a change from a soup with just a sort of oversized bun! That small spark of originality made me want to go back again
A few weeks later Caroline and I returned for Sunday lunch. Again excellent. Beautifully roasted chicken I remember and all the trimmings. Great value too. We sat at a huge table in the window, much to everyone’s fury (always turn up early for Sunday lunch, wherever you go!) read the newspaper and had a convivial time. The only downer was bashing our heads on the lampshade that had been placed strategically at ‘standing up‘ point above the table! Lol etc. BB enjoyed it too … they allow dogs in the bar.. and even have posh dog biscuits behind the bar!
I then went again a couple of weeks ago for Sunday lunch with friends. Ditto really, apart from we sat in the beautiful garden …. And I mean a ‘real’ garden with colourful flowerbeds and trees…a garden which someone takes pride in, not just a ‘pub’ garden with tables stacked almost on top of each other and with plastic grass (for God’s sake!) like somewhere else I could (but won’t) tell you about.
And so to last night’s visit.
We sat down outside, under a rather cosy illuminated pergola, but as Madame soon found it on the cool side, we asked to be moved back into the main restaurant. No problem, despite the place being pretty packed! We were given a big table which was set well apart from the next one. No overcrowding here.
Our drinks came quickly … a bottle of House Claret (2009). A nice, robust wine, sensibly priced, and a bottle of tap water (free)
To start we shared a token plate of garlic bread (93 year olds don’t have huge appetites and we weren’t going to disgrace ourselves infront of her!) Not much you can say about Garlic bread …. But it tasted hugely of garlic which was a relief, and parsley and butter, and came nicely presented with a little salad, and was quite enough to whet 3 appetites for the main course.
And so the mains came … and must say we were rendered temporarily speechless by the sheer …well… majesty of each plate.
Madame had calves liver with bacon. It looked lovely and was cooked to perfection … soft, pink inside, and interleaved with delicious, smoked bacon. Poured over was just the right amount of a very glossy gravy and it all sat on a bed of perfectly mashed potatoes. And the generosity of the portion … apart from chez Piggy here, never have I seen 3 large slices served … not even in France !
Madame’s delightful granddaughter, who had joined us hot off a dentists chair in London, had a steak. Now young Sabrina is something of a firebrand when it come to steak. More than once I have seen her, with complete justification and with polite froideur, send a steak back as it bore no resemblance to what she had ordered.
She cut into her (huge) steak …. and smiled. I think more than once! She thrust a piece at me to try. Melt in the mouth good it was!
I do go on to anyone who cares to listen (No one! Ed.) that steaks should be thick…3 fingers thick is good…. they should not have a large surface area and be thin. The latter may look generous on a plate, but a thin steak will carry on cooking off the grill and will almost inevitably end up overcooked and thus tough. Go to any self respecting steakhouse in the US or South America … the steaks may be huge, but they are thick …. yes, yes… just like me!
Anyway we voted a 10/10 for the steak, which came with a Bearnaise (I think … too busy looking at the menu) sauce and some French beans, a baked potato and a nice amount of Onion gravy. Sabrina was a happy bunny.
Now finally I get round to going on about my own dish, which was so good I have lain awake half the night thinking about it and what I am going to write about it!
Fish Stew. But a fish stew with the emphasis on F i s h . Strange as that may seem, and as an inveterate lover of fish, I have eaten some fish stews in my life … from Doyles in Sydney Harbour to Kerala and from Harbourside in Palermo to the Crabfest at Stinston beach in California. Not trying to show off there … just giving some justification to my remarks, and some were good, some highly talked-up, some not so good. Fish stew is alot like Fish pie (oh, and risotto for that matter!) … a lot of absolute cock is written about all of them!
What worries me is that what I have to say may lack a degree of credibility given here we are 50 miles from the nearest sea. But also to say the a fish stew in a pub in suburban England was possibly the best I have ever had might just sound hysterical nonsense … someone banging on, dewy eyed about a pub in his home town …but well, it just was! I may well have missed many fish stews in the world so am a poor judge, but this was just fantastic.
For a start the sheer size of what came on the plate … 3 HUGE portions of different fish. A generous portion of salmon, an equally large slab of cod and a third even more enormous portion of another fish which I’m afraid I can’t remember what it was.
Then it had mussels …. and squid … and prawns ….and freshly made toasted croutons and a delicious (Ok …. Slightly under garliced for my Italianate taste, but this is England! A bowl of galicky Rouille on the side maybe…?) tomatoey-saffron flavoured sauce (for which one was given a separate spoon … nice touch) . It was absolutely delicious …. !
And the chef has clearly learned the number one, two and three rule of fish stew/soup … leave the bloody thing alone once the large fish has gone in. Stirring it around in a homely fashion only breaks up the fish, and the thing ends up looking scrawny!
We passed on a pudding, though noted how nice and how large they looked scattered decorously on the other tables around us, and ordered coffee. OK, Coffee – and in particular an espresso – is the Achilles heel of almost every restaurant I have ever been to in England. It was not good … much too watery … I asked them to do it again. Same result. But never mind, I know I’m too much of a coffee snob and after all it is the food that counts … and the service… and the atmosphere of the place … which were all spot on.
But it was the consistency of the quality which just amazed me. Plate after plate came out of the kitchen, and past our table. Each looked the same … as close as one can get to perfection. We had 3 of the 7 or 8 main courses on offer and so felt it statistically reasonable to assume the others were as good as ours… they were certainly as well presented. We concluded there must be a man sitting at the exit from the kitchens with an AK 47 ready to annihilate anyone that walked out with anything substandard …. And that the chef must have nerves of steel!
But here though is a little comparison. I wrote here a few weeks ago of a visit I made to Marco Pierre White’s new(ish) restaurant in Sussex. I had a very good meal, well presented and well served. It was reasonably good value for money and I came away pretty satisfied by the experience. But compare my overall experience there with tonight’s at the Old Plough, and actually there is simply no comparison to be made. This was in every respect better. The dining room was lighter, brighter and most importantly fuller (and this was a Wednesday night … that was a Friday!) .. the service even better, and above all the food was simply in a different league. And that’s Marco Pierre White we’re talking about …. !
Well, the end really. We all hugely enjoyed our evening here. The place was packed-out … not overcrowded though … and is clearly run by people who know exactly what they are doing with charming staff that have clearly been trained to bursting.
We are planning to return again next week for another go … this time bringing Caroline with us. That’ll be 2 fish stews please !
Oh, and lastly the bill ? Well, I am not going to tell you. It would spoil the fun … all I will say is that when it came … we still didn’t stop smiling !