THE ARDEN ARMS sits on top of Atley Hill, which is a little rise between Darlington and Northallerton. Down in the dip below is the plodginess of Pepper Arden Bottoms, where a redundant 15th Century church, with a couple of sleeping stone knights, is looked over by the battlements of Cowton Castle.

The Arden Arms has a history, too. Once it was renowned locally for the excellence of its culinary offering – only in 2011 in these very columns, its Sunday carvery praised as one of the best around.

But the last time we called in, covered in mud after plodging around the bottoms, it was dark and dismal, in its death throes. All we got to eat was a packet of Scampi fries and another of dry roast peanuts – they had sold out of salted.

It’s been closed for a couple of years, but it reopened on August 12 after a major refit.

It looks superb, redecorated in a fashionable sage green which sets off the dark wood of a traditional inn, and the floor has been beautifully tiled. It is huge, in a cosy way: 40 or 50 seats in the main area, a couple of ante rooms with scores more, plus a bar with a pool table and a dog joining its owners who were dining.

We looked in last Sunday, greeted just inside the door and shown to our table.

The first menu we encountered was a blackboard advertising seven gins plus a Pinkster fruity special, with raspberries and mint – a little too much fresh mint was stuffed into the glass goblet, but Petra was pleased nonetheless.

The second menu was a blackboard of specials – monkfish, braised lamb shoulder, wild boar fillet, escalope of veal. Given this was a Sunday lunch, this was imaginative fare.

The starters also looked inventive – I would have loved a go at the deep-fried black pudding, sausage and pulled pork Scotch egg on Boston baked beans – but the family out-voted me and decided we should just have a main and dessert.

The traditional Sunday roasts – one course £9.95, two courses £14.95 and three courses £19.95 – were very well received, even if there was a mix-up in the serving between lamb and beef so we ended up swopping the scorching hot plates between us.

The meat was nicely roasted, there was a good gravy, large quantities of the mashed and roasted potatoes and three veg. If we are hypercritical, the Yorkshires had just caught on the top, but there was the superb addition of a lovely plate of Savoy Cabbage with shredded carrot served in cream with bacon.

Petra went from the specials board and had cod wrapped in parma ham on a curried prawn risotto (£16.95). It was a fine dish, a huge wad of brilliant white cod, perfectly cooked with the ham and the rice’s slight spices giving it lift.

I had chosen what I considered to be the bravest, and most intriguing, item on the main menu: lambs kidneys cooked with sausage, madeira, mushrooms and shallots, served with rice. I was intrigued as to how the sausages would interact with the kidneys, and the truth was that they blew them away. They were two plump, chubby little blighters – the sort that if you put them on a barbecue they would spit viciously at you – and they overpowered the 15 or so undemonstrative kidneys and mushrooms.

They were served in a mighty meaty gravy, which was best when tempered with an expertly roasted potato.

In contrast to the inventiveness of the menus for the first two courses, the desserts on offer were quite straightforward. There was a waffle with loads of chocolate sauce and ice cream, a nicely routine sticky toffee pudding, and a banoffee sundae that was fine on the offee side but the ban bit had been binned.

And then there was the crème brulee, for which there was a delay. There was a sweet apology – it’s just in the freezer, we were told. And then, 30 seconds later, it arrived, the top blowtorched into a tooth-breaking black tarmac beneath which was a layer of untouched sugar. Then came the crème, which was both hot and cold.

It was gone 1pm, the large pub was at its busiest, and you could sense that although the swan appeared to be swimming along serenely there was some extremely frantic paddling in the kitchen. For instance, on the table beside us, the veg and potatoes for the roast dinners didn’t materialise at all. The diners chuntered to themselves but, inexplicably, never drew the fact that they’d been forgotten to a waitress’ attention.

Our brulee was immediately, apologetically and without any question struck from our bill. It was a fair recovery.

The reincarnated Arden Arms has a welcoming feel. It has an adventurous menu and it serves good food which is worth the extra few pounds you pay to up it from a standard Sunday pub dinner. We left feeling that it is about to recover its reputation of a decade or so ago – but, six weeks after opening, it has to iron out its teething problems.


Arden Arms, Atley Hill, South Cowton, DL7 0JB

Phone: 01325-378678

There doesn’t seem to be a website yet, but it is on Facebook.

Ratings (out of ten): Surroundings 8, Food quality 7, Service 6, Value for money 7