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The day dawned cold and sunny after another of Rutland’s wonderful sunrises, and it seemed a good day to get out and do something cheerful. (Mild the winter may have been, but many a morning it has been hard to convince my brain that it is time to get up, it’s been so dark and dank.)

So, having heard on the grapevine – via the Great Food Club  – that the Fox & Hounds at Exton had been totally transformed by a new team, the dog and I headed up Barnsdale Avenue (how can such a beautiful lane sound so suburban?!) to Exton, perhaps the loveliest of all the beautiful villages in Rutland. My lunch-partner and I walked the Kizzy the wonderdog around the green and along a couple of pretty dead-ends to admire the thatched cottages, then tucked her up in the back of the car before heading across the green to the Fox & Hounds.

The Fox & Hounds Exton

The Fox & Hounds Exton

From the outside, the Georgian frontage, with its sash windows and dignified symmetry looked like a country pub; the faded pub sign and lantern over the door looked like a country pub, but once inside we appeared to have walked into a Georgian gentleman’s club. The dramatic décor features crystal chandeliers, antique tables and comfy armchairs against a backdrop of muted browns and greys that has more than a hint of Farrow & Ball about it. One of the chandeliers had been ‘dropped’ onto the bar, its lit candles artistically dripping wax onto the counter. The room may be striking enough to feature in a glossy mag, but it was also very warm and welcoming despite us being the first customers of the day.

On the bar at the Fox & Hounds

On the bar at the Fox & Hounds

The young bar/waiting staff welcomed us enthusiastically and, as I’d rung earlier to check lunch was ‘on’ they offered us the choice between eating in a corner of the bar at an antique circular table, or in the (at present empty) restaurant. We opted for the bustle of the bar and enjoyed the chat while choosing our food, and eavesdropping as new patrons arrived.

While the Fox & Hounds has a posh pub grub menu, we were looking to treat ourselves and so went for the special lunch at £19.50 for two courses. There were three starters and three mains to choose from and half a dozen ‘sides’. Decision-making was difficult but in the interests of reviewing, in the end I selected different dishes from my companion: Clementine, Rainbow Beets & Goat Cheese salad followed by Pan Roasted Norwegian Cod for me; Pheasant & Quail Tortellini then Oven Roasted Pork Loin for him, with a side of Sweet Potato Fries.

clementine, rainbow beets and goat cheese

clementine, rainbow beets and goat cheese

My starter managed to be both Spring-fresh and have a winter salad feel: quenelles of soft cheese contrasted with crisp-sharp beets and bursts of juice from the fruit, set against the crunch of a tiny breaded goat’s cheese.

pheasant and quail tortellini

pheasant and quail tortellini

After an initial ‘hhhhmmm’ of satisfaction, my companion was mostly silent as he demolished the game tortellini, announcing it to be a highly successful combination, with a really delicious sauce noted on the menu as a grape and caper jus.

We had an encouraging amount of time to wait for our main courses: just the right amount of time that tells you the food is being cooked to order with loving care. It gave me time to take a couple of photos and exchange greetings with later diners who went through to the restaurant proper, and with the staff. And then piping hot plates of food arrived and we concentrated on those! My cod had a perfectly-seasoned crispy skin and sat on a soupy cassoulet of cannellini beans and braised leek with bok choi. A golden ‘madras, apple and pernod’ foam added a fragrant hint of curry without dominating at all, and the whole was topped off with something light and crunchy to contrast. This was, as far as I am concerned, a faultless bowl and I asked for a spoon to ensure that every scrap of cassoulet could be scooped up.

pan roasted norwegian cod

pan roasted norwegian cod

My companion’s pork loin was generously cut, in fact so thick that though it was moist and tender, it took some eating! The hero of the dish, as far as he was concerned, was the woodland mushroom and tender-stem salad in combination with the cider and mustard jus which pulled the whole dish together.

free range pork loin, oven-roasted

free range pork loin, oven-roasted

And the mystery of what the menu called ‘pork air’ was semi-revealed to be a bit like diced crackling, but that does not do justice to something that made us both smile (I was allowed to taste). The waiter kindly went to ask the chef how he’d achieved these sublime puffs of crackling-flavoured air, but he returned to say that it was a trade secret.

Less of a secret was the success of the irresistible sweet potato fries which were incredibly crisp and more-ish (I ate my fair share): apparently being shaken in maple syrup before they’re fried makes all the difference.

We had no room for pudding, but I took a photo of the choices to give me something to look forward to next time! Before we left I sneaked a peek into the restaurant proper, which is small enough to feel intimate and was again both cosy and stylish with antique furniture and bold décor.

Any caveats? Just two I think: the blackboard on the bar was headed ‘Wines by the Glass’ but was blank and when the bill came it turned out that while my glass of sauvignon blanc was a very reasonable £4.50, my companion’s glass of red – one of three options presented by the waiter – was a hefty £7.75. Stuart certainly has no qualms about paying that for a good glass of wine, but he should have been in a position to make an informed choice, and if not listed on the board then the waiter should have pointed out the different wines and prices.

And the other? When you have a soupy dish for which you need a spoon a bowl is expected, but when you’re presented with three delicate tortelloni dampened with just the right amount of jus, a bowl is something of an impediment when you’re wielding a knife and fork, and you end up with your elbows in the air. But that’s a tiny niggle that can be applied to a lot of restaurants.

It was a surprise to learn that the Fox & Hounds is now owned by Rochelle Bushell, who has a collection of restaurants in and around Cape Town and has chosen Exton for her first UK business. I’m not sure what drew her to Rutland and this quintessentially English village, but her make-over, with this mixture of style, people and ingredients is a triumph. Head chef, and in charge of service on our visit, is a gentleman with a great pedigree (La Gavroche, Nobu and Tom’s Kitchen) called Omar Palazzolo. I do hope he is enjoying Rutland and stays around for a very long time!

A handful of rooms are now available for overnights and weekend breaks.  So while it may look like a pub on the outside, and feel like a cosy club to its regulars, the Fox & Hounds is really a very sophisticated Restaurant-with-Rooms that will soon have the weekenders from London heading up the A1 on a Friday night.

The restaurant at the Fox & Hounds on The Green at Exton is open Tuesday to Sunday, 12-2.30pm and 6.30-9.30pm. Booking strongly advised! 01572 812403

ExtonFox+HoundsBar2

the dramatic, yet cosy bar

 
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