“ The Inn @ West End / 42 Guildford Road / West End / Surrey / GU24 9PW / Tel 01276 858652. „
I almost feel bad about writing this review, as I'm going to go against the grain a little and not shower this place with glowing praise. But I'm writing this from my personal experiences, and I'm afraid they haven't all been great here.
The Inn at West End sits in the small village of West End, which is just outside Woking. Sitting on the main road, The Inn proudly displays a banner on the outside of the pub telling of its latest foodie accolade. I think at the moment they're celebrating being "Food Pub Of The Year 2008 - South" or something similar. Whatever the banner proclaims, it certainly looks pretty impressive.
On entering the pub, there is a bar area to the front of you and to the right - this is usually full of locals having a light-hearted debate about something or other. There is a fire in this section too, which is often lit on cold nights. Through the back of the bar area lies the conservatory and the garden, both of which are used for dining. The main dining room, however is to the left of the front door, where there are around 10 tables, fairly tightly packed in. The decor is what I'd call a modern twist on a traditional English pub - paintings on the walls and a somewhat cramped table arrangement, but with a fresher colour scheme than a lot of pubs.
Well that's all very well, but the important thing about a celebrated Gastro Pub is, of course, the food! The menu is very British - they specialise in game and fish dishes, but with menu space also being given to some other British favourites such as Kedgeree or lamb, beef and pork. Prices are categorically not cheap, with a weekend set menu costing £32.50 for three courses, and the a la carte main courses priced intimidatingly at the best part of £20 each. At these prices, and with my bank balance, The Inn places itself firmly into the "special occasion restaurant" category rather than, well, Gastro Pub.
Having had my little moan about the prices, I must admit that the menu does look great. Traditional British food is something that's surprisingly hard to come by, but here they create a dream menu, full of delicious comfort food and hearty British meals. It's very difficult to only order one course with a menu like this - I've never managed, despite the prices.
On top of this fabulous menu, The Inn has one of the best wine lists I've ever seen. The owner is a wine merchant, specialising in Portuguese wines, and he will happily recommend the ideal wine to go with anything on his menu. The list is vast, and comes in a book. When I've come here just for some wine and a natter, it really is the perfect upmarket pub experience - a great atmosphere from the busy restaurant and happy locals in the bar, a fire and an amazing bottle of wine (even the house red is better than anything I've ever picked out myself!), it rarely gets much better.
So what's the drawback for me? Well, and I hate to say this, but the food often isn't good enough! The first time I came here, I'll admit I had one of the best meals of my life - each course was just spectacular. There were three of us, and thanks to a lot of tasting over the table, I can confirm that all of our meals were excellent. We'd arrived off the street and managed to pick a quiet time, getting a table within 10 minutes, and I think the food reflected the amount to time the chef was able to take over each course. This, however, was over a year ago now, and I haven't had a great meal in The Inn since. Getting a table at the weekend now requires a booking at least a week in advance, and it is always heaving. Unfortunately I've really noticed this in the quality of my meals the last two times I've been. Once I opted for a duck breast dish, which came out incredibly tough, with a half-hearted sauce (but admittedly with fantastic vegetables!). Another time I had a lamb dish, which was very tasty, but not nearly up to the standard I'd expect for nearly £20 - the portion of lamb was meagre and the presentation just looked rushed. We've also had some very ordinary starters and deserts, with the mixed fish platter (no better than one I could've thrown together myself, in terms of taste or presentation) and the too-cold cheese board being prime examples.
It's clear that The Inn at West End is able to produce some absolutely stunning food - I've had some myself, and it obviously impresses the critics no end. But I can't help but think that in a lot of ways this place is a victim of its own success. There are too many tables in the small dining area at the front of the pub, making you feel really packed in during your meal. The ingredients used in the kitchen are of great quality, but often they are not prepared well, and meals are rushed - presumably because of all those people crammed into the dining room! The great service and dedicated attention from the waitresses and the owner that we were treated to on our first visit have now all but disappeared - service is also now rushed, and many of the waiting staff aren't nearly familiar enough with the menu or the wine list to help you make the perfect choices.
I may go back to The Inn at some point, but after being disappointed on two special occasions now, I can't see it being too soon, and it definitely won't be when I think it might be busy.
Our Home Counties location spoils us when it comes to food. Many of the best restaurants outside the capital are situated within a short drive (under an hour) and so we really can take our pick. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of mid-priced good restaurants; we go from one extreme to the other. If you don't want fast food and you don't want fine dining, with the exception of a rather good curry house or two and the odd oriental eatery it's pubs, pubs and more pubs. Now, don't get me wrong, some of these establishments are more than adequate, particularly for a Sunday lunch but few actually live up to much else all the more so when they describe themselves as "gastro pubs".
The Inn@West End is different.
We first happened upon this eatery as a result of one of the Time Dine promotions - a meal for £10 a head if I recall. Given it was so local and seemed to have received many an accolade we decided that there was nothing to lose.
What followed was a great dining experience and one that was to be repeated.
The Inn quite rightly describes itself as a gastro pub. Experience has shown that many establishments give themselves this title undeservedly - if they serve food they seem to think that they qualify for "gastro" status. The Inn is different. It's a tiny establishment with no more than 10 tables inside in the restaurant section although the capacity does increase in the summer when the conservatory and garden can also be used for dining. The bar area is similarly small and attracts a few locals, mainly seeking out the excellent wines on offer but also partaking of the ales. There's a boules league and a golf gathering so there clearly are "regulars".
Most people, though, will come for the dining and, with the list of accolades growing they're coming from further and further afield.
There are generally two menus in operation, a weekday a la carte and a weekend set menu. In addition, if there is an offer running, such as the Times offer that first drew us here, there'll be a slightly more limited set menu (but still drawing from the food on the main menu). The weekend set menus offer exceptional value for money at £25 for 2 courses or a shade under £30 for 3 (correct as of 4 January 2008). A la Carte prices vary with starters around £7, mains around £16 and desserts at £6. There are also a selection of sides and light bites. The restaurant's speciality is game and fish and these items predominate on both menus and on the specials boards. Products are sourced so that they are as fresh as possible and early morning trips out in the local area can often result in the Inn's refrigerated van being seen coming back from a local farm or the coast. As testament to the fact that food should be as fresh as possible it's not uncommon to find that the item you want has run out or is in limited supply. The hosts will inform you of this when they present the menu, however, so there'll be no last minute "oh, what shall I have's".
The cooking style is distinctly British, a rare thing in the UK these days. Food is prepared so that the flavours speak for themselves. The presentation is first class and portions are not skimpy. It's testament to the culinary skills of Lee, the head chef, and his team, that the plate always seems to contain the right amount. What looks like a small plate is usually spot on, and what looks like a mountain is similarly accurate.
The pleasure does not stop at the food however. The licensee is also a wine merchant and the wine list is simply huge. There's something to suit every taste and every pocket from a £12 regular bottle through to wines costing £200 a bottle. Several wines are available by the glass. The wine "list" (for list is to do it an injustice) is a book, set out in groups according to colour and country. There's then a claret list and a great bin ends list. There's always something interesting.
The pub runs various wine related events, tastings and paired meals and it's also possible to order cases of the wines you've enjoyed with your meal.
The atmosphere in the pub is always entirely understated. It has a kind of raw, almost Gaelic feel to it with bare floors, yellow walls and simple wooden furniture. The art that adorns the walls is eclectic and yet seemingly themed. At times the place feels almost Dickensian but that might also suggest that it is dark which is not really the case. Nappery is crisp (an improvement on the original paper cloths) and flatware suitably simple. A fresh flower bud will usually adorn the table together with a candle after dark.
There's no dress code (as one would expect of a pub) although people do tend to come suitably attired for a good meal. Children under 5 are not permitted at all and children over that age will only be hosted if they sit at the table with the adults and behave accordingly. The hosts will ask people to leave if they are spoiling the dining experience. I think this is a good thing. For one there are many pubs that won't accept children at all, and for another this is an expensive night out that you don't really want spoiled by those who see fit to let their children run about.
This establishment really does go the extra mile - if you're fairly local they'll even collect and return you home so that all of the party can enjoy a drink (or two).
If you're in the Woking area (or passing by on the M3) do stop and give this place a go - booking, particularly Friday through Sunday is probably advisable as it's small but it's worth the effort. This can be done by phone or on their website www.the-inn.co.uk
Food Pub of the Year 2007
On one of those roasting hot summer Sundays that we seem to be enjoying more and more these days, thanks to Global Warming, we had two choices; go home and sit out on the patio with a selection of cheeses and biscuits and a chilled bottle of a good rosé or let someone else do the work. At the time we were just passing The Inn @ West End located, not in The West End but in West End, near Lightwater in Surrey.
I had noticed the pub before and had been intrigued by the ampersand in the name, assuming an owner with more than a passing familiarity with the Internet. I was right. A little search of the Web uncovered a website that is not afraid to blow its own trumpet with an address of www.the-inn.co.uk and email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. Apart from a very representative picture of the pub itself you are informed that the pub, owned by Gerry and Ann Price, has won an award as Gastropub of the year 2007, South East England. The website also has a booking form for requesting a reservation. I used it and it was responded to promptly so this is clearly not just a shop window although I did notice that the menus shown there were not the same as we found during our most recent visit.
But, before I was able to discover all this we were to sample what the pub had to offer on that Saturday lunchtime.
The pub has a good amount of car parking space out front. The interior is attractive with a somewhat rustic feel to it. The bar is in front of you as you enter and extends to the left, in front of which is primarily the eating area. The room extends in front of you to the right of the bar to the Garden Room, which is the extended dining area, and from there through french windows into the back garden. It was here we chose to eat, beneath the verandah overlooking the garden, where we could get some relief from the heat of the midday sun.
Now, to be honest, I can't remember what we ate then other than it was delicious and accompanied by a glass of an excellent chilled white wine. What I do remember is that we both agreed that we should return one evening to sample their dinner menu. Like many such intentions, it was some time before it was realised.
The occasion that presented itself as an ideal opportunity was the joint birthday celebrations for my wife and son, only two days apart but celebrated normally together on the next weekend after. I hadn't revealed my choice to them and so it was with the normal process of turning up at the door, all the time with them trying to guess where we were heading (I know where we're going. Oh, shouldn't we have turned down there? Ah, OK, now I know. Oh, wrong again). In this case it was my daughter's boyfriend who was our chauffeur for the evening so I didn't have to worry about drinking.
The Inn @ West End can be found by coming off of the M3 at J3, Lightwater, and following the Lightwater by-pass to the first roundabout. Straight on over the roundabout to the first set of traffic lights and The Inn is very shortly after them on the right, so don't go roaring off from the lights.
This evening the five of us were seated in the Garden Room. It was still too cold, due to a sudden cold snap, to eat outside. By this time it was also dark so we couldn't enjoy any views of the garden either. Right by our table was a bookcase set into the wall with a whole stack of popular novels, should your company for the evening prove boring!
At weekends the offering is a set course menu of two or three courses. The three course menu at £29.75 per person. There is plenty of choice of both fish and meat dishes for both the starters and the main course and in addition you can choose from a chalkboard of specials of the day, starters and main courses. Even though fairly early in the evening however, the sea bream was already all gone, which was a great disappointment to my wife as it is one of her favourites. We also overheard a nearby table being told that there was only one helping left of the cod! Maybe anticipation of demand is not the restaurant's strong point?
For starters we variously chose the watercress and potato soup with lemon cream, mussels and for my daughter, grilled goats cheese. Everyone expressed themselves very pleased with their chosen dishes.
As most of us who were drinking wine were also having fish, we stuck to convention and chose a white wine. From the restaurant's interesting list I chose a Gavi de Gavi from Italy, not because I had ever tried it before but because it intrigued me. Described as coming from vineyards set in the hills and from 50 year old Cortese vines, I had to give it a go. It proved a good choice. The wine left a slight tingle on the tongue although not a sparkling wine, and an after-taste of peaches in the mouth. A truly excellent and unusual wine that I shall look out for again. Such a success was it that we ordered a second bottle. This particular wine was £20.75 a bottle.
For he main course both my wife and I had New Forest reared Barramundi (a fresh water fish native to Australia) and Black Bream. This was served on a bed of cabbage and bacon bits and with new potatoes. My son had the guinea fowl, my daughter the mussels (these served both as a starter and a main course) and her boyfriend the cod. Once again, however, my first choice was foiled. The specials menu had monkfish with ginger but it turned out that this was only available as a starter. Nevertheless, once again, all of the dishes were superbly served and everyone was very happy with their choice. Throughout the service was attentive but not intrusive.
And so to the desserts. Looking down the menu I spotted the Usual Suspect, Crème Brullee. Now, I have to say that since I sampled a Crème Brullee De Luxe at one establishment, I have been spoiled. Most of you will be familiar with the usual run-of-the-mill offering, a sort of custard cream with a crystallised, caramelised sugar coating on the top. However, once, some time ago, what I was served turned out to be, in place of the usual custard cream, pure Cornish Clotted Cream with real vanilla (you could see the tiny black specks). I was the nearest I've ever come to an orgasmic eating experience.
Now, Gerry is obviously proud of his traditional version, and rightly so. He offered me an opportunity to try it even though I decided to choose the caramelised Bread and Butter pudding instead. I have to admit that as Crème Brullee goes, his is as good as it gets. The Bread and Butter pudding though, was not entirely as I would have liked it. I prefer mine where the bread is still very distinct rather than almost dissolved into the mix. However, it did taste very good even so.
The whole evening was great success, rounded off with coffee and spirits. The bill for the five of us came to just under £220.
The Inn is a very good location for a special occasion and even just for a pub lunch. We will undoubtedly return again, especially as it is so close to home for us and we could get there by taxi so as to fully enjoy all that is on offer.