The Aspinall Arms – Was It Worth The Wait?
Dormant for over a year, the Aspinall Arms in Mitton, Clitheroe was in danger of becoming another pub closure, sold off to property developers.
However, Brunning & Price stepped in and after a 6 month refurbishment the Aspinall Arms finally reopened its doors on May 7th. Was it worth the wait? I suspect many of the customers from the previous incarnation of the Aspinall Arms would say no. The once dingy music and comedy venue is unrecognizable. In its place a smart, clean-cut country pub with fine heavy furniture, open fires and a promising menu.
The team behind the reinvention of the Aspinall Arms have really worked wonders. Set on the banks of the River Ribble the extensive garden has been landscaped with picnic table style seating for perhaps one hundred, and a ‘garden room’ constructed which overlooks the river. Masses of windows bathe the interior with rich Ribble Valley light, giving a lovely fresh country feeling to the whole of the pub. Large cast iron fires add to the atmosphere and a long curved bar cuts through the centre of the building. The walls are covered with pictures and photos, local scenes past and present. With so much going on the decor can feel a little busy or crowded.
Not all tables are bookable so it’s usually fine to drop in if you don’t mind a wait. We did just that and our wait was insubstantial. We were shown to one of several dining areas, with seating for about 25 or so, boasting two large well stoked cast iron fires. We were handed the menus and seated next to the fire on a lovely thick wooden table. The daily menu is pretty much the right size with about ten starters and twenty mains, as well as sandwiches, children’s meals and sides, there is something for everyone. The chef Martyn Barnes trained at the Ivy in London – famous for its celebrities rather than its food – has played the menu quite safe. Although it’s great to see some interesting spiced dishes on offer, but most of it is fayre standard to the Ribble Valley – there is a good variety and choice here, but there is a very similar menu on offer at the top of the hill.
By the time orders had been taken and drinks arrived it was becoming apparent that the army of staff were largely new to battle, although very pleasant and polite it felt like they needed directing and weren’t really up to the standards established by the venue itself.
The starters arrived. The presentation was not too fussy, but clean and elegant perfectly in keeping with the menu. There were three eating in our party and all the starters were enjoyed. The plum and ginger made for an exciting chutney that worked well with the pate. The seared scallops were good but outshone by their black pudding accompaniment, the dish was pleasantly elevated by the minted peas.
The real winner was the mushroom soup which exceeded all expectations; creamy, earthy, velvety luxury. Delicious.
Appetites buoyed by the standard of the first course, another round of drinks was ordered. The waiter didn’t seem too confident with our drinks order, but confirmed he had the right drinks written down and set off on his way. It’s hard to say where he was going, because 20 minutes later he had not returned with our drinks. However, several members of staff had been to attend the fire, which could now be more accurately described as a furnace. It seems mean to complain about keeping a fire well stoked but it was 15°C outside and the restaurant was packed with people. Soon we were increasingly uncomfortable, exacerbated by the lack of drinks, which by now had been reported to a more senior member of staff.
The mains arrived and the drinks turned up not long afterwards. We had ordered three dishes: braised shoulder of lamb, tandoori hake fillet and finally thyme roast chicken breast.
The main courses all stood up well. Style, flavour and portion size were all good. It was especially pleasing that the Tandoori hake had authentic flavour and was cooked to perfection, as well as the crispy cauliflower bhaji. The current crop of ‘local-is-king’ pubs and restaurants in the Ribble Valley often seem scared to put anything adventurous or experimental on their menus.
The lamb felt like it had been slow cooked for days, it was so tender it fell apart on the fork, all the fat had rendered down leaving a beautiful hunk of meat that married well with the sweetness of the carrot balanced nicely by the broccoli. The dauphinoise was a little dry and seemingly lacking nutmeg, but the rosemary gravy was lovely and tied everything together well.
The chicken was moist and tender, with a good crispy skin and there was a lot of it. The salty bacon lifted the creamy cabbage and taken with the red wine jus, a very well rounded dish.
On this occasion we were too full to take a dessert and there was an increasing risk of becoming part of the fire.
The Aspinall Arms has changed. It has changed beyond recognition and to the chagrin of a few, for the better. We encountered a couple of problems. As is nearly always the case in large Ribble Valley eateries, money is thrown at the building and décor, the kitchen is well staffed with people who know how to cook, but the service is let down by young, inexperienced staff. But was it worth our wait? Yes it was.
It’s early days and overall things are going well. The food and decor is spot on. With the luxury of a daily menu, hopefully Chef Martyn Barnes will be able to push the Ribble Valley food boundaries with adventurous and experimental new dishes. The Aspinall Arms is definitely challenging to be the standard bearer for Ribble Valley cuisine.