Whenever I wanted a little innocent amusement I turned to TripAdvisor and the reports of the Devonshire Arms, Middle Handley. This award-winning pub drew plaudits and brickbats in equal measure but what added a touch of spice, an unexpected piquancy, were the landlady’s comments.
“Clearly it would have been better for all concerned if you had simply gone to KFC and eaten a bucket or two full of what you normally eat, the finer things in life aren’t for you.”
“Please spend your weekends in Huddersfield away from our pub, we don’t need or want customers like you.”
Now, though, the tone is more upbeat. “My, has the place improved,” notes one reviewer. “This is just what we need, great hearty food,” adds another.
The place, a lovely pub in the middle of some quiet, gentle countryside, is in new hands and one pair of them belongs to charismatic chef, Cary Brown. By both our reckonings this must be his tenth venture or rebranding but, duck for cover chaps, Cary has a Concept.
The man who did fine dining at the Charnwood and Carriages, made fish sexy at Slammers, spinned pizzas at the Limes and transformed himself into The Pub Landlord.1 at the Royal Oak, Millthorpe, with the finest Sunday dinner I’ll ever have on earth, is now The Pub Landlord.2
The Concept is simple, says Cary. It’s a pub. It’s a bit posh but it’s not a gastro-pub. It serves proper food. Don’t panic you might get swirls or flecks or foams. You won’t. It tastes good. No pressure if you don’t want to eat but that bloke at the bar just came in for a pint and weakened at the thought of a lobster roll. You pay for your food and drink when you order and don’t ask for a tab.
“In the past it was a pub with a restaurant. We want to get it back to being a pub again with drinkers in. Nice drinkers – imagine that, people drinking in a pub! –eating pork scratchings,” he says.
There’s an echo of his fish restaurant days with a blackboard offering prawns, crab, lobster, thermidor “all served with bread and proper butter.” There was also grilled lemon sole and roast halibut but both had gone when we arrived. Cary promises the offering will get ritzier as time progresses.
We arrived on the day of my former colleague Lesley Draper’s review in the Sheffield Telegraph. She’d liked it but reported there were no starters as such. That’s the Concept although I must admit it took me some time to grasp . And, as she says, since everything is on blackboards, there’s a fair bit of walking about as you decide.
For non-fish eaters there was poussin, a burger, proper corned beef hash (he corned the beef himself) and, among other things, rib eye with Bearnaise. Hearty stuff.
Cary’s partner Shelley Chilton, the other pair of capable hands involved, suggested my wife have the salmon briefly seared and it proved a revelation, firming up nicely and deepening the taste. I had, for some reason, half a pint of king prawns which you could call a sort of deconstructed prawn cocktail.
You shelled them yourself, of course. I had to be careful as the heads were full of blood which spurted. They were tasty, particularly when dipped in Marie Rose sauce, and if you were looking for lettuce (this wasn’t a prawn cocktail) there were a couple of basil leaves for greenery. It came with Melba toast made from Cary’s own Bloomer but I had to pinch my wife’s butter.
This dish also includes a shower. The lot is served on one of those pesky boards and when it came to clearing away the waitress slipped and the finger bowl of warm water splattered my trousers. Many chefs have wanted to do something similar over the years.
For ‘mains’ my wife had a half lobster thermidor, which at £12 is a bargain and could well become the pub’s signature dish. So far he has sold 160. If you’ve never had this combination of grilled lobster, creamy sauce, mustard and Parmesan try his gutsy version.
I had Brixham crab with a salad big enough to defeat a field full of rabbits. I did think later that Cary had had very little to do with the crab, which must have come already dressed, except to artistically arrange the cucumber slices on the top. But he has never served me a dull mouthful and this was as seafaringly splendid a crab as you’ll get.
At this point I had to mention his obsession with Melba toast. I got it again. And without butter, despite the blackboard promises. Bread, preferably brown, and butter is a must with crab. When I asked why he said it was just himself in the kitchen and easier to do. So far he’s been working alone as he builds up the business.
One of his jobs, he says, is to win back the locals so the sort of food he is offering is an attempt to persuade them they won’t have to have a three-course job if they cross the threshold. They’ll find a roomy pub with slick modern décor, not a horse brass or a Toby jug in sight, neutral tones, downlights and the occasional sign (apart from those blackboards) to complement the wooden floor.
There’s a no bookings, no tab policy and, currently, there are problems over the website which is for the previous business. Check things out on the Facebook page listed below.
So, nice one Cary but ditch that flippin’ Melba toast; this is not the Sixties nor the old Dore Grill.
PS: My trousers survived the soaking.
The Devonshire Arms is at Lightwood Lane, Middle Handley, Sheffield S21 5RN. Tel: 01246 434 800.