After almost a year head chef John Parsons is still not entirely sure what his market is at the picturesque Druid Inn, Birchover, in the remoter reaches of North Derbyshire. There’s a camping and caravan site just up the road so does he cook the campers fish and chips or should he cater for the foodies?
The 200-year-old pub was a fashionable watering hole run by the charismatic and wonderfully named Brian Bunce in the Eighties, boasting a 100-plus item backboard menu and a woodland mural around the walls of a dining room. If you had a sports car, a sports jacket and a sporty girlfriend, you made sure you were seen here.
This century has seen the Druid in the guides as a foodie destination with, successively, Richard Smith, the Thompson brothers and Wayne Rodgers at the helm.
John is no slacker himself in the kitchen. He took Kitchen on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield, into the guides and has built up his own loyal circle of admirers who have followed him around his many restaurants. For them the Druid offers fancy, thoughtful food as well as burger and chips.
I’d count myself as a foodie so I started with John’s sausage roll.
It’s not your average sausage roll. Inside the ultra crispy pastry, speckled with sesame, is not only sausage meat but tiny cubes of black pudding and chorizo. It sits on a quite spectacular slick of sticky tomato sauce, the house ketchup being reduced down with chorizo. The garnish is crispy sage. Not bad for a fiver and an object lesson in how to send a humble dish dizzyingly upmarket.
Meanwhile my wife was splashing out twice as much for a couple of soft seared scallops partnered, oddly, by a toasted crab and ham sandwich. It works!
I’d ordered a Parsons’ menu regular, cassoulet with Toulouse sausage but the waitress came back saying the butcher had let them down and not delivered any pork belly. That would have put paid to John’s signature dish, Dixie’s Three Little Pigs – a trio of cheek, belly and fillet. It’s named after his daughter.
The pork in the cassoulet was replaced by shoulder of lamb, in a chunk, to partner the duck leg and sausage. But when it came the liquor had been all but absorbed by the breadcrumb topping and was too dry. By the time I found the waitress my wife was halfway through her asparagus and broccoli risotto.
The Black Dog of gloom descended on my shoulders as she finished her main before I had been re-served mine. This time it had perhaps too much liquor but the kitchen obviously wasn’t taking chances. I ate it rather grumpily. To be fair, I’d conceded it was a pretty good cassoulet the time I finished.
We had hoped to share John’s trademark Paris-Brest, a cream-filled choux pastry ring, but despite it being chalked up on the board would not be ready for half an hour. We made do with a very, very runny chocolate and salted caramel tart, which I couldn’t help thinking ought to have been set.
So win some and lose some at the Druid, where the décor has been stripped down to its pubby essentials but the bar area looks a little scuffed. It could do with a lick of paint and some TLC.