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The Bull on Bell Street, Henley

Is there anything more fun than an image overhaul?  The Bull on Bell Street in Henley, above, has just had quite the facelift, and so who better than the wrinkle-free and fragrant Sarah Prior, ex Berkshire Muddy editor, Henley resident and all round oinking foodie to report on its shiny new look? Over to Sarah…

We all need a little lift now and again – an eyebrow shape, a facial, that sparkly top we’re convinced won’t cling to our blobby bits. Pubs and restaurants are no different and The Bull on Bell Street in Henley has certainly had its vitamin infusion or possibly even a bit of Botox here and there. A makeover in September of last year (and we’re talking Gok Wan proportions here) has given the pub a well-deserved boost, and it was time for Muddy to check out its new curves.

I used to live in Henley and ate at The Bull quite a bit. I can tell you it definitely looks and feels a lot different, and feedback from locals is very positive. The place has a much more buzzy vibe now, and the bold colours and furnishings give it a much funkier more contemporary feel. The Bull is a pretty substantial pub (the building is one of Henley’s oldest by the way, dating back some 700 years) and its lengthy open plan space has been clearly ‘zoned’ into more flexible spaces.

You have the cosy ‘drinking’ section at the front with the whopping great open fire where you’ll want to hunker down with a good book, a glass of red, and your ‘Keep Calm and Hygge On’ cashmere hoodie, to the right is the ’conservatory’ which is light and bright with its new wooden floor with turquoise patterned slates and ‘stay a while’ velvet banquette seating. Then wind your way past the long bar (rammed on weekends), past the raised platform with the baby grand piano where live entertainment regularly pops up, and at the back you’ll find the two more formal rooms for dining.

Simon, the pub manager, tells me the dining spaces don’t tend to be used during the day, but come alive at night with well spaced tables to the right and plush banquettes to the left and the most stunning tiled floor. All the ‘zones’ are chic but comfortable and you’ll definitely want to sneak a few fabrics and light fittings in your handbag.The pub also has its own micro-brewery at the far end brewing Brakspears cask ales in a stylishly buffed copper distillery behind a large display window. There’s a decent amount of outside space too, perfect for warmer days to come, but for now I’d definitely nab your spot by the fire!

With the new look came a new head chef – Dan, who was previously at The Chequers in Marlow – and the menu has had a major overhaul. There’s a selection of nibbles and small plates ideal for sharing, plus a pared back list of pub must-haves including salads, steaks, burgers, fish and veggie options, and one of the biggest successes – the introduction of a range of sourdough pizzas cooked in the new pizza oven. Simon admits he wasn’t initially convinced about doing pizzas (the pub is a mere stretchy cheese length from Zizzi’s, Strada, Pizza Express and Dominoes) but they have been a massive hit.

We didn’t actually choose pizza for our lunch, though saw enough being devoured around us that we’ll definitely be ordering one next time! I was with my sister on this visit, which is handy as she has no qualms about me eating half of what’s on her plate for research purposes. So we chose a section of nibbles (you can choose 3 for £11) salt & pepper squid with aioli, halloumi chips with jalapeño ketchup and prawn spring rolls with sweet chilli dipping sauce. They were all absolutely delicious.

The spring rolls were freshly made with a lovely spicy kick to them, the squid was beautifully tender and the halloumi chips were the stuff of dreams – hot squidgy halloumi rolled in crispy panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. I loved it so much I’d quite like to be rolled in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried myself.

For our mains I went for a veggie option partly because I’m always interested to see what a chef can do with vegetables (do stop sniggering at the back), and partly because I just couldn’t decide so asked Simon what he recommended. I wasn’t disappointed with my sweet potato and aubergine Malaysian curry with coconut rice and crispy okra (£13.50) it was nicely presented and tasted fantastic – really hot and spicy, and with a clever mix of textures to keep things interesting.

My sis had lemon and parsley crumbed monkfish goujons, crushed peas, tartare sauce and fries (£12.50). Fish absolutely cooked to perfection and delicious, the only slight complaint was the chips were a little cold, but overall the food was outstanding.

We pushed on through to pudding – warm chocolate brownie with raspberry sorbet, and we were intrigued to try the apple and raisin crumble with ‘hidden custard’, both £6. I can’t fault my brownie, it was not too gooey, not too cakey and with a really rich chocolate oomph that worked perfectly with the zingy sorbet. The crumble was a little heavy on the raisins, and I think I still prefer the sheer joy of pouring my own custard liberally over my pud, but it was darn tasty.

Although we were child-free the day we visited (oh yeah!) I did check out the children’s menu just of you Mudsters and there are nice simple choices – monkfish or chicken goujons with fries and peas, penne pasts with tomato sauce and I liked the sound of the ‘build your own pizza’ – all £5 to £6 per dish. They even do kids’ mocktails so they can have a virgin mojito or virgin pina colada, just make sure they don’t get mixed up with mummy’s tipple (probably slightly less pure, ahem).

It’s all in the details with the interiors

When it first opened (back in 2013 I think) I remember the food here being ok, but inconsistent, and the place also lacked atmosphere. But since it’s latest shake up, things have definitely picked up – just the fact the restaurant is now constantly busy and lively is testament to that. The bar is usually packed in the evenings and I’d now recommend you book, particularly towards the end of the week and on the weekends. Simon and his staff are excellent, it’s quite a young team and they are friendly and helpful without being intrusive.

I think The Bull has pulled off that tricky job of being all things to all people and is confidently ticking all the boxes now. Well worth a visit, especially if you haven’t tried it for a while and it’s very handy for a quick meal before you head to The Regal cinema next door. Also worth mentioning if you fancy popping in after a long dog walk up the river, dogs are welcome in the conservatory. I’ll be the one dozing by the fire – just give me a shove if it starts getting dangerously close to school pick up time will you?!

THE MUDDY VERDICT:

Good for: anyone looking for an urbane buzz, whether you want just a drink and a snack at the bar, lunch with a girlfriend, a large table for a big family gathering or a date night dinner in the quieter area at the back. The Sunday brunch is also really popular, it’s best to book.

Not for: families looking for all-singing-all-dancing outside areas – it’s a town centre pub with some enclosed outside space that backs onto the Brakspear car park, ideal when the weather perks up for eating outside as there are plenty of tables, but don’t go looking for climbing frames or wendy houses. Though I would say the pub is perfectly child-friendly and there are plenty of corners to tuck buggies away.

£££: the high end of reasonable (you’re in Henley after all). Mains £12 to £18; Pizzas (10 inch) £9; Sides £3; Desserts £6. If you’re looking for a light lunch then the small plates and nibbles are ideal: Small plates £7; Nibbles £4 each or 3 for £11.

The Bull on Bell Street, 57-59 Bell Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon RG9 2BA. Tel: 01491 576554. Brunch (Sat & Sun only) 10am to 12pm; Lunch 12pm to 6pm; Dinner 6pm to 10pm (Sun 9pm); Late night pizzas (Fri & Sat only) 10.30pm to 12.30am. bullonbell.co.uk

 

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