By Sheila Dixon

HAVING secured a last minute booking for the Oak Tree Inn at Hutton Magna, it was a no brainer to take the back roads to the village rather than join the manic A66 of a Friday evening.

With barely another vehicle in sight it was a delightful run, over the wooden bridge at Whorlton, leading to a relaxed arrival at our destination. Parking is limited, the inn being at the end of a row of raised cottages, but we found a free spot further up the road.

From the outside it could be mistaken as one of the cottages but, Tardis-like, the inn is spacious inside, the long room having a real fire and sofas at the top end, extending to bar and dining beyond.

Welcomed by name, rather than having to proffer it, was a nice attention to detail before being offered drinks. Peter selected a pint of Timothy Taylor’s while I chose a Shiraz with a lovely vanilla aftertaste.

Having been directed to our table, some time elapsed without any appearance of menus to peruse or further acknowledgement of our existence, the reason for which soon became apparent. With a flushed face, but otherwise unfazed, owner Claire Ross approached with said menus and beaming smile, giving us her full attention and a genuine apology for not finding time to welcome us sooner, explaining that the gas had been off in the kitchen and had only just come back on, resulting in a delay.

Goodness knows what frantic activity was afoot behind the scenes as Claire’s husband, Savoy trained Alistair, strove to get everyone’s food out, but there remained an aura of calm front-of-house, with spicy cashew nuts and parmesan biscuits appearing while we made our choices. We were in no rush, secure in the knowledge that we would be fed eventually, when Claire reappeared, this time with a pot of hummus and delicious selection of breads to keep us going.

After about a half hour delay – we’ve waited longer in some restaurants when there was no crisis – we salivated at our starters. My bowl of steamed Shetland mussels and king prawns with curry and coriander was stunning. Having asked Claire’s advice on the strength of the curry liquor I was assured it enhanced the dish rather than overpowered it, and so it proved. Peter’s warm salad of pork belly and black pudding with a honey and mustard dressing was equally enjoyable, everything served at the right temperature.

From a choice of five mains, I went for best end of lamb (£23.50) with olive oil mash, aubergine, broccoli and salsa verde, while Peter decided on a fillet of beef (£25), with cabbage, bacon and truffle mash. While we were each delighted with the quality and quantity of the meat, we were underwhelmed by the paucity of the accompaniments – quality and flavour was there, but the portions so sparing (barely a smeared comma of potato, ribbon of aubergine etc) that we were left with large portions of unadorned meat to finish, which delicious as it was became rather monotonous.

With room for dessert Peter fancied an exotic sounding rum and coconut panna cotta with pineapple, but inexplicably it only came as a sharing portion for two at £12. I almost offered to share until my eye alighted on a peanut butter parfait with mocha sorbet and espresso syrup, so with nothing else taking his fancy he nobly went without while I went to heaven. I adore peanut butter, but rarely buy a jar, as I can resist everything except temptation and would have it eaten before I got it home. The dish was all I hoped for and more, the mocha and espresso flavours sharpening the taste of what could have been a sickly dish, even for a peanut butter lover such as I.

Replete, we had to give a gentle reminder about our coffee order, but we felt this forgivable after the unexpected crisis the proprietors had successfully overcome. Said beverages arrived with petit fours of amaretto chocolates plus ‘lollipops’ featuring mint ice cream covered in chocolate and dipped in hundreds and thousands. Pleasantly full, I declined while Peter tried both. The lollipop wasn’t to his taste, but the chocolates went down well with the decent sized coffees.

The Ross’s have been at The Oak Tree Inn for 12-and-a-half years, their relaxed service, seasonal menus and welcoming attitude having built a loyal fan base of regular customers to fill the 18 covers.

Our overall bill, including Peter’s pint and my two glasses of Shiraz, amounted to £91.05, and to Clare’s credit she didn’t faint when we eventually revealed, on settling up, that we were to write a review.

Oak Tree Inn, Hutton Magna, DL11 7HH. Tel: 01833 627371. Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday from 6.30pm, relaxed about closing time. Booking essential (let them know if you are vegetarian at time of booking).

Ratings: Food quality 9, service 8, surroundings 7, value for money 7.