IN the 14 years this column has been covering 2,000 square miles of the old North Riding of Yorkshire and the County of Durham we have come across all sorts of folk behind the bars and in the kitchens of pubs and restaurants who, frankly, should never have been there.
Miserable old gits we have encountered aplenty. Landlords so irascible they can turn beer off just by pulling it from the pump, chefs so temperamental they make Donald Trump appear totally Zen-like and bar staff so vapidly vacant they should have been forced to undergo a personality transplant.
Frequently, they survived in business because we all love a bit of a character, don’t we? Recommendations to visit places have often been couched in terms of: “Don’t mind the sour-faced dragon behind the bar, the fish and chips are superb” etc.
We had these thoughts in mind as we headed south down the A1 to a country inn that was reviewed here very favourably by a colleague in the first few weeks of this column’s existence way back in 2003. A return visit was well overdue.
Since then of course, the advent of social media means that anyone can instantly see what the world (and his wife) think about a place and while I don’t hold great store by online opinion, it can give you a flavour of general sentiment.
And based on those comments, it is clear that for every ten people who think the folk running the Nag’s Head at Pickhill are thoroughly good eggs there are three who think their customer service skills could do with a just little polishing. In truth, some of the comments are rather blunter than that.
What I had heard, through old fashioned gossip and Nag’s Head customers, is that Edward and Janet Boynton, who have run the inn for more than 45 years now, know exactly what they are doing, accordingly run a tight ship and, by the by, don’t suffer fools gladly.
So we were on our best behaviour as we arrived a couple of minutes late having negotiated the slightly tortuous approach to Pickhill via the new-ish A1 local access road. (When we booked we had been carefully told that we needed to come off the motorway at either Leeming Bar or Baldersby to find the village).
Greeted by Janet at reception we were ushered into the bar/dining area where Edward was behind the pumps. Between them they told us all we needed to know. Which was quite a lot of information in fact.
But once we got ourselves seated in the lounge bar (within sight of the wood-burner) and sussed out which of the many chalkboards listed the starters, main courses, fish and veggie options and Edward had repeated the specials options, we relaxed with our drinks.
And happily I can report we found the Boyntons to be utterly charming hosts throughout the evening. There was a slight sense that Edward was initially “getting our measure” but once we discovered a common interest in the Turf and a mutual dislike of Leeds United all went swimmingly.
And the food was, with one notable exception, bloody brilliant.
As befits a traditional country inn run by a traditional couple, the menu is dominated by high-end pub classics with a few nods to contemporary tastes.
Meat, fish and game take centre stage and everything is sourced as locally as possible.
Fish is delivered from Hartlepool by our old friend Alan Hodgson which helped explain the sublime quality of my seafood gratin starter (£7.95), a cereal bowl-full of chunks of fresh salmon, haddock plus prawns swimming in a cheddar cheese sauce topped with a classic gratin which was just the right consistency – not too thick or rich – and just cried out to be mopped up with the warmed brown bread rolls we also been served.
The prawns served tempura style (£7.95) to Sylvia were fat little beauties squeezed into the crispiest of batter coats and propped up on a sweet chilli stir fry garnish. Faultless, she declared.
The advertised dry-aged rib-eye steak wasn’t available so I settled for alternative sirloin (£24.95) which looked beautiful, yielded to the knife as if it was butter, was juiciest personified and … utterly lacking in any real depth of flavour. And that was disappointing given the price tag and that the onion rings were £3 extra. But the thick-cut chips were great.
Sylvia’s slow-cooked shoulder of lamb (£14.95) had been pulled from the bone and packed into a little tower of sticky, meltingly-soft lamby sinews bathed in a flavour-packed lamb juice reduction. It came with nicely browned fondant potato, red cabbage, a delicate cauliflower puree and some roasted winter baby vegetables that were only just al dente but very prettily presented.
Edward turned on the charm to tempt us into sharing a warm Norfolk treacle tart (£5.95) – beautifully light pastry, no soggy bottom – served with rhubarb crumble ice cream. He also demonstrated his passion for wine by further tempting us into sharing a small glass of dessert wine – a fruity-sweet Australian Semillion (£4.50) which proved to a be very good companion to the tart.
With a coffee and two glasses of house wine (including an excellent smoky Malbec) with our main courses, the bill came to £86.
The Nag’s Head, Pickhill, Nr Thirsk, YO7 4JG
Tel: 01845 567391
Disabled access. Vegetarian and gluten free options.
Open for food: noon-2pm, 6-9pm
Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9 Service 9 Surroundings 8 Value 7