Muddy eats: The Crown, Granborough
Attention sugar fiends! This rural mid Bucks gastro pub does killer desserts. Best-selling crime novelist Sharon Bolton gets stuck in.
I love nothing more than hunting down new locations for my crime novels: an ancient forest, dripping with moss where no sunlight reaches? Great! Lonely windswept hill, topped by a solitary tree from which miscreants were hanged in days gone by? Fabulous! So when I learned that Granborough in deepest Bucks is a place even most locals haven’t heard of, and that its ancient coaching inn, The Crown, lies at the end of a single-track lane last resurfaced by the Romans, my interest was piqued. I set off on a dark and stormy (the best kind) autumn day and the stage was set…
Well, The Crown wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s certainly an old coaching inn, and the ceiling beams are worryingly low in places, but the similarities to Jamaica Inn end there. It’s been modernised and extended over the years to create a warm and welcoming space with a modern British menu. And we had a thoroughly nice – and not at all sinister – afternoon.
Old coaching inns are ten a penny in the English countryside, and most of them claim to offer something for everyone, but they rarely work as hard as The Crown to get the punters in and keep them coming back. Love your pizza with a twist? The ‘Crown Jewels’ with its truffle cream base, ham hock and wild mushrooms could be exactly what you’re looking for. Fancy a taste of north Africa? In early November they’re offering a one-off Moroccan themed evening. During our visit staff were promoting their Chinese evening, the upcoming England v New Zealand game and their Tuesday steak nights. You sense this is a lively and innovative team constantly brainstorming ways to appeal to the public.
It’s a friendly, relaxed country pub with a touch of shabby chic. There’s plenty of space here; the Crown might have started life as a pokey coaching inn in the days when people were less than five feet tall, but it’s been extended over the years to the point where it can comfortably seat 130 for Sunday lunch.
In summer, when the terrace comes into play, their cover number is unlimited. (A bold claim, on the part of front of house manager, Steph, but one I’m sure they’d love to put to the test.)
Significantly, for a pub that wants to be a restaurant, the bar remains a bar and a huge TV regularly screens sports fixtures to the loyal local crowd. They don’t even have to mix with the pre-dinner drinkers, if they prefer not, because the smaller, equally comfortable, Gin Bar takes care of the non-locals.
THE GIN BAR
More than deserving its own sub-heading, the Gin Bar was my favourite part. I don’t drink in October (sober for October – it’s a thing) but my just-turned-18-year-old son was all over the Two Birds strawberry and vanilla gin with lemon tonic. Boasting 50 different gins (the most popular being Warners Rhubarb and the Tanqueray Sevilla) many with their own bespoke tonics, this nook is a fun and different way to kick off an evening (although I suspect some might never make it to the restaurant). Extra points by the way, for a straw that wasn’t plastic.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The Crown has two dining rooms and, I’ll admit, my heart sank as we were steered towards a large, conservatory-like structure at the back of the building, with a hardwood floor, huge vaulted roof and lots of windows; this was a cold and rainy day remember? I needn’t have worried. The wood-burning stove kept us more than toasty, while the fairy lights and low chandeliers added to the cosy feel.
The menus are extensive which is not always a great sign, (the more dishes on offer, the less time that goes into each one) but here I think they’ve got the balance right. There are separate menus for dinner, lunch, Sunday lunch and Saturday brunch, although many of the dishes are common to all. There’s also a children’s menu and one that caters for vegan and vegetarians.
The lunch menu consists largely of the pub classics you’d expect in a home counties gastro pub, but with a couple of eye-catchers such as the Ham Hock Terrine with Beetroot Chutney and Walnut Bread (£6.95 for a starter) and Black Pudding Sausages, Caramelised Onion Potatoes and Cavolo Nero (main at £13.95). Pizzas, sandwiches and grilled paninis are also on offer at lunchtime.
I started with broccoli soup sprinkled with a creamy Stilton that came to the table piping hot and was very good. Teenager’s eyes had already lit up at the sight of one of his favourites on the specials menu – Crisp Fried Squid with Aioli. His verdict: awesome. My main was Pan Roast Sea Bream with Butter Beans and Chorizo Provencale (£14.95) Some powerful flavours in this dish; I thoroughly enjoyed it but couldn’t quite finish it. By contrast, my son’s rib eye steak with chips and peppercorn sauce didn’t last more than ten minutes on the plate, which has to speak volumes for its quality. I managed to nick one of his tomatoes – chargrilled, sweet and totally delicious. I’m not a steak fan but could have ordered that dish just for the sides.
Puddings were beyond me, but my Bottomless Pit ordered the Chocolate Treacle Cake with Griottine Cherries & Salted Caramel Ice Cream, and here, dear reader, is where The Crown really steps up a gear from classic pub food to something a bit special. The pudding menu is superb. Only five choices, two of which looked quite light (Poached Pear, Vanilla Mascarpone Cream, Amaretti Biscuit; Lemon Posset, Red Fruit Compote, Ginger Nut Biscuit) but all original and perfectly balanced. The chocolate cake was good by itself, but when blended with the sour cream, salted caramel ice cream and cherry curd, it was out of this world. The chef in charge, operations manager Lee, is the son of a patisserie chef and believe me, it shows.
OUT & ABOUT
Waddesdon Manor, home of the Rothschild family and its collection, is close by, as is Bletchley Park, famous for its war-time code-breaking shenanigans. Hughenden Manor (former home of Benjamin Disraeli) is well worth a visit and Buckinghamshire boasts some very good walking, especially through its traditional beech woods, some pleasant old market towns and a surprising number of artisan breweries. If you’re seeking retail therapy, Bicester Village is just up the road.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
This is a relaxed and friendly gastro pub, with a particularly good pudding chef, that puts the emphasis on fun as much as food.
Good for: Cosy lunch on a chilly autumn day, a weekend treat with the family, pudding aficionados, adventurous types with four-wheel drive.
Not for: Er, tall people as some of the ceiling beams are very low. Party people looking for a buzz might want to head for brighter lights – this is a teeny village, after all.
The damage: Most expensive item on the dinner menu is the rib eye, at £23, with other dishes, including the pizzas, coming in at the £13 – £15 mark. Starters were around £7, puddings all at £6.95, whilst five cheeses would set you back £10.95. Prices are the same at lunchtime.
The Crown, Winslow Road, Granborough, Buckingham, MK18 3NJ. Tel: 01296 670216
The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton is out now