With the upsurge in low-key dining, pub fare done well is very much back on the menu. Sian Griffiths heads to The Swan in Almondsbury to see how it’s done…
We Brits have a long-standing love affair with the beloved pub, and it seems as though it’s back in fashion. There’s been a noticeable shift in the restaurant industry towards a more laid-back, casual style of dining, as reflected in the 2015 edition of the Michelin Guide, where you’ll find a staggering 590 pubs from across Britain.
‘Fine dining is dead: long live the pub’, said a recent article in The Times, explaining that taste is more important than elaborate decor; linen tablecloths are out, robust flavours are in. This is where good pubs come into their own, serving lovingly prepared dishes alongside top-notch drink, but striking the balance between pub and restaurant remains a tricky task. Along with some other local bloggers, I was recently invited to spend an evening at The Swan Hotel in Almondsbury, near Bristol, whose aim is to do just this.
Located just a 15-minute drive from Bristol city centre, in the picturesque village of Almondsbury, the distinct atmosphere of a village pub awaited us. Owners Garth and Katie Jackson have transformed this once run-down building into a warm, inviting place to eat and drink, and the simple, rustic interior and the British menu with a modern twist are a match made in heaven. Food and drink are given equal thought here, and as I walked through the door I noticed that drinkers and diners were sitting happily side by side. On what Garth described as a ‘quieter evening’ (although it looked pretty busy to me), the atmosphere was still bustling, and the homely, unpretentious surroundings were most inviting.
Locally sourced, seasonal produce is favoured here and talented head chef Nigel Bissett – winner of Young Master Chef in 2003 – shows off his strong technical ability with a host of honest, well-executed dishes.
‘I put a lot of care and precision into the food. Here at The Swan our customers enjoy good flavours, freshness and value for money. They also want to know where the ingredients are from. With that in mind we have favourite suppliers and order local produce. At the same time, quality must come first. If I can get something ten times better from 100 miles away, I will use it.’
We were treated to a selection of tasters from the autumn menu, all of which were delicious: the pork and apple arancini with mustard mayonnaise were beautifully crisp and full of texture (£6.95); the juicy beef burgers in a soft squishy bun were topped with deliciously sweet red onion (£10.95); the locally shot game stew was rich and hearty (£11.95); and the amaretto and sour cherry mousse, served in a chocolate cup, was just sweet enough (£5.25).
Dishes of this calibre would undoubtedly be priced higher (probably around £3 to £4 more) were they being served in a city-centre establishment, but here you get a much better deal for top-quality plates of food and a local feel to go with it. The menu is imaginative enough to entice punters from the city but simple enough to suit more traditional tastes, and The Swan Hotel prides itself on listening to customer feedback, which is always an important factor in the success of a pub.
After dinner, our palates were really put to the test with a challenge organised by the chef – we were tasked with identifying ingredients hidden in some peculiar concoctions. Cream cheese was disguised as something resembling white chocolate, lavender and bee pollen were mixed up in a shot glass and, best of all, Guinness was disguised as a lollipop (yes, it’s delicious).
All in all, we had a really enjoyable evening at The Swan. With a laid-back ambience, customer-centric approach and focus on quality and taste, it seems as though Garth and Katie have found the recipe for success, and they will soon be taking on a new venture closer the city centre. If you’re local to the area or are just passing through, a visit is highly recommended.