IT is reassuring to walk into the Baskerville — an unassuming red-brick building in Lower Shiplake — and find that the pub has not been completely gastrified.
There is a bar with bar stools, tables and chairs and a good line-up of real ales... and there are people drinking and chewing the fat, like you used to get in locals up and down the country. There is nothing wrong with gastropubs, of course, but there is a lot to be said for pubs retaining their traditional character — a place to go for a pint and a chat, if that’s all you want.
Once you move away from the bar into the dining room, however, you know you are now in a restaurant. Wooden tables are laid with white cotton napkins and sparkling wine glasses, and little red oil lamps cast a rosy glow, giving an ambience of relaxed chic.
The spring à la carte menu has something for everyone, including sirloin steak, lamb, fish and seafood. Even though I am no longer a vegetarian I always cast my eye over the veggie offerings, because an innovative meat-free choice speaks volumes about the creativity of the chef. In the case of the Baskerville, the choice passed the test — a crumbled goat’s cheese, mint and pea salad for starters and a linguine, cream and broccoli main, with a further selection on request.
Of course, if you are a veggie, choosing your meal is always easy and quick: you cast your eye down the list looking for the “V” indicator, and Bob’s your uncle. Hence for 20-odd years my choices were made in two nano-seconds while my husband ummed and ahhed (annoyingly) for half an hour, then kept the waitress waiting, pen poised, until finally a tut or sigh from my side of the table forced him into a decision.
Now, as poacher turned gamekeeper, I understand the turmoil he has been going through, since there are so many lovely things to pick from. Each line of the menu has to be not only read but also savoured for a moment while you try to imagine what the combination of flavours is going to taste like. Then there is also the importance of balancing your choices, so that you cast your flavour net as wide as possible. It’s an exhausting occupation, but someone’s got to do it.
With all this in mind I finally opted for fishy starter and meat main. The crispy fried salt and pepper squid was lovely — the meat beautifully fresh and soft, with a twist of lemon and an unusual harissa mayonnaise for dipping. You can’t beat squid for a starter. It always brings to mind Spain, and tapas, and sitting on an exotic sandy beach surrounded by the music of the Castillian language. Husband also chose seafood, but his was decidedly more British, in the form of rope-grown mussels from Poole harbour. He loved the unusual twist in the sauce — smoked bacon, a hint of blue cheese, shallots and a cider sauce.
And so to the mains. I could not resist trying the Scottish take on a poultry dish and the Balmoral chicken came stuffed with haggis, wrapped in bacon and doused in a whisky cream sauce: utterly delicious and redolent of some far-flung castle on a loch. His Chiltern lamb was done Mediterranean/Maghreb style, flavoured with cumin and with a pepper and olive caponata. The sweet potato fries from the side order list were long and thin and gorgeously crunchy.
A dose of sugar is essential at the end of any dining out experience (no matter how many gurus write books telling us it’s the new poison) and it was pleasing to see that the desserts on the list were all home-made, including a winter berry take on Eton Mess and ice cream flavours never yet seen in any Italian gelateria, such as Turkish delight and Christmas pudding. We stuck with tradition and chose to share the sticky toffee pudding which somehow seemed fitting in this English pub setting.
We liked this restaurant very much: the service is well-timed, well-judged, helpful and friendly without being too fussy and the ambience cosy. But mostly we loved it for the interesting, good-value menu and the excellent, fresh food.
Restaurant: The Baskerville, Shiplake
Prices: spring à la carte menu — starters £5.95 to £7.50, mains £12.95 to £16.95 (sirloin steak £23.50), desserts £5.95 to £6.50
Contact: 0118 940 3332