What can you tell us about Bel & The Dragon
Apart from sounding a bit like a children's TV show, this is one of a small chain of inns in Surrey and Berkshire run by Ollie Vigors and Joel Cadbury who used to own the Groucho club in Soho. They've brought in Ronnie Kimbugwe, former sous chef of Gordon Ramsay at Claridges to work on the menus.
Where is it?
We went to the Bel & the Dragon in Churt, about a 10 minute drive south of Farnham in Surrey. It's in a pretty, forested spot right by a sculpture park and close to a place of natural beauty, the Devil's Jumps. From London it's an hour on the train from Waterloo - so super easy for a quick night away from town.
What are the rooms like?
There are 14 rooms here, all beautifully designed with White Company linen and names after Austen characters. We were in Bingley - a double which can be turned into a twin. There's a really nice level of hospitality for guests - from the bottle of Sipsmith Sloe Gin in the bedroom to the decanters of whisky in an upstairs snug to help yourselves to once the bar downstairs closes at 11pm. In the morning, the same area also has a coffee machine, so you can knock yourself up a proper cup before you head down for breakfast.
So the food and drink is worth coming for then?
It is. The early signs were good when we took a look at the cocktail menu in the bar - our dry martini was expertly made with Sipsmith and the Whisky Sour was pretty good too. Both were a bargain at £7.
Staff here have been well trained - our waiter was on point with the specials and wine recommendations and everyone around us seemed happy and well taken care of. We kicked off our dinner in the restaurant with a perfectly poached duck egg served with slices of avocado topped with bacon chutney (£8) and a generous starter size of Shetland mussels in a Scrumpy Jack Cider and bacon broth (£8). Our mains were a whole baby chicken served up with bread sauce (£16) and a delicious suckling pig with crackling, crunchy roast potatoes and spiced apple chutney £19) which we would have loved even more if it hadn't come on a board.
Knowing we only had to heft ourselves upstairs we settled in for dessert. Our rhubarb fool tasted sadly more of berry coulis than rhubarb but the alternative of Valrhona chocolate and honeycomb mousse with raspberries and popping candy made up for it.
All in all a good evening in a pretty much packed dining room with plenty of buzz.
What about wine?
The list here is perhaps better than you'd expect from a country inn. The company work with French producer Olivier Leflaive to create their own label Burgundy white and red wines and in addition to the main lists there's also a selection of more expensive wines available from their cellar, starting at £43 and going up to £98 for a bottle of 2003 Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac. Ales are sourced from local brewery Hogs Back.
How about breakfast?
Unlike a lot of inns, the dining room here in Churt is suited to both cosy evening dinners as well as being a cheerful place to breakfast. There's a table laid out with free newspapers and you're invited to help yourself to toast, juice, cereals and coffee. They have a short breakast menu - bacon with eggs of your choice or pancakes with blueberries, maple syrup and bacon. We went the savoury route trying both poached and scrambled, and given how many places can't get this simple thing right - we were pleased to see that Bel & the Dragon could.
Where can you go to work off all that food?
If you've driven here, there are plenty of places to go on scenic walks a little distance away - including the woods where the first scenes in Gladiator were filmed - but just two minutes down the lane from the pub is a bridle path that heads up to a hill with a pretty amazing view of the Surrey countryside. We managed about five minutes up here gawping at the scenery before dashing back to the inn ahead of a storm, but you could have a good yomp around here no problem.
Our room at the Inn would set you back £125 for bed and breakfast this Friday night. To book go to their website at www.belandthedragon-churt.co.uk
Hot Dinners stayed as guests of Bel & The Dragon. Prices correct at the time of writing.