A hit in the 1990s, but everything changes - for the better, remember
Apparently the 1960s were a time no-one should be able to remember – a decade so hedonistic, memories were obliterated. Personally, I’m of a ‘younger’ generation, but going by that adage I must have been having a particularly great time in the mid-1990s because returning to an old stomping ground of the era recently, I could recall none of it.
I think it was 1994 and every Thursday meant a trek over to The Fence Gate for a few drinks with friends, friends of friends and probably a few folks I’d never met before. We had some good nights (I’m sure ) and I have vague recollections of what the place was like. However, arriving to meet some ‘new old friends’ on a Saturday evening a few weeks ago nothing was ringing any bells.
A beautiful and imposing old coaching inn dating back to 1782, you’d think it would have stuck in my memory. No doubt altered over the years (in my defence!) the interior is now a cool mix of classic and contemporary, heavy fabrics and upholstered furniture mixed with muted paintwork and rustic open fires.
Family gatherings and cosy dinners fit well in the intimate eating areas – each one has a distinct style of its own with exposed brickwork, vaulted ceiling or wood panelling. The robust materials contrast with some shiny chrome surfaces and a mixture of modern over-sized light fittings and eclectic chandeliers cobbled together from antique shop glassware which provide a cosy glow.
Busy and bustling, the bar area was packed with drinkers and diners, some perched on high tables trying to tuck in while pints and prosecco were passed around them. Leaving them to it, my party of seven and I were shown to a round table in a quieter corner, perfect for those of us of a certain age whose priority is now belly over beer (not like the 90s).
The menu is large, but not unnervingly so and while you spot all the classics – lamb, seabass, fish and chips, steaks, pies and burgers – you get the feeling there’s something a little exciting in there too. To begin there’s Duck Liver and Pedro Ximenez Parfait, and Treacle Cured Strips of Beef in Tempura Batter, and at a fairly pricey £8.25 and £7.85 respectively, you would want them to be impressive too. Mains include Katsu Chicken Curry and Roasted Hake, with all manner of interesting sides and sauces – pak choi, borlotti bean emulsion, Aspen fries in truffle oil – and range from £11.95 for a choice of sausage up to £27.50 for an eight ounce filet of wood-fired beef.
Between us we had flat breads, chipolatas, scallops wth belly pork, Bramble and Bay Jam Baked Camembert and Bang Bang Chicken Lollipops to start. Everything was fresh, neatly presented, full of flavour and, justifying those prices, a substantial size. My gluten free soup was a thick and creamy carrot with a fresh coriander punch. There were other ingredients in there too which I can’t remember now (it’s that memory problem again) but one was a mild coconut and it all combined to make a delicious, hearty but not too heavy starter.
The mains, meanwhile, probably reflected their more average price tags – that’s not to say they were disappointing, they just didn’t have quite the same impact. Again, cleanly presented, the portions were smaller but the flavours and quality were still there. Sausages were fat and juicy (their accompanying ‘chunky chips’ more of a roast potato), stroganoffs were creamy, 16-hour cooked lamb shoulder tender, and two Confit Gressingham Duck Legs, while considered a little over-cooked, packed plenty of flavour with sides of bubble and squeak, truffle creamed leeks and a prune and armagnac sauce. My seabass was soft, delicately flavoured and served on a smooth mash laced with fennel. Fresh peas added some texture and cut through the creamy-ness.
To accompany, two of us shared a bottle of rosé, a cool, crisp contrast to all those foody flavours , if a little steep at £19.95 a bottle. The rest of the party stuck to the bar with pints coming in at around £4 . But if you’re a gin fan it would be well worth you paying a visit – they are the official Guinness World Record holders of the largest variety of commercially available gins with 623 of them proudly displayed!
The bill came to just over £220, which when split between the eight of us came to around £28 each – very reasonable for the quality, and perhaps proving me wrong about prices.
Left to relax and chat at the end of our meal, before we knew it it was 10.30pm and we’d forgotten to have dessert. I can only put it down to our age, but it gives us an excuse to go back, if only to try the puddings.
The Fence Gate 01282 618101
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