You will feel a great sense of relief when you arrive in the picture postcard Hampshire village of East Chisenbury, just south of Pewsey. Its pretty thatched houses, stone walls, neat lawns and rose covered gardens are a welcome respite after the dreary military bases and barbed wire fenced encampments that you pass going south through Tidworth and the edges of prairie-like Salisbury Plain. The most beautiful part of England it is not, but once you are ensconced at your table in this chic inn all your troubles will be lifted, we guarantee it.
As the saying goes “You do not get a second chance to make a good first impression” and the first impression here is very good indeed: dark, burgundy coloured woodwork, olive green walls, wooden floors and lots (and lots) of bottles of expensive wines used as window decorations. There are plain scrubbed tables, flowery curtains, Kilner jars of olives, Amalfi lemons in earthenware bowls and chalk boards that promise a very good lunch is on its way.
The Menu is so short, you know immediately that ingredients are fresh and well chosen. It is the end of July and the season is ripe and ready for a good Gazpacho with chilli, cucumber and toasted almonds and a Montgomery Cheddar and caramelised onion tart with dressed gem leaves.
We like a Menu that speaks of abroad while firmly rooted in local suppliers and nearby traders, and there are nods to the Mediterranean, Madeira, France and the Hampshire / Wiltshire borders across the board. The cheese selection is very well chosen, featuring Ogleshield, Crozier Blue, Sharpham Elmhurst and Berkswell.
Our steamed River Fowey mussels with saffron, cream and chives were huge, soft, salty, herby and rich. The grilled wild salmon with olive oil mash, Provencal tomato, grilled courgette and gremolata was perfectly cooked, delicately seasoned and beautifully presented. The tour de force were the excellently executed buffalo mozzarella arancini with sweetcorn, roast red peppers, Chisenbury peas and basil: extremely colourful and cooked to within a millimetre of al dente softness. Arancini are difficult to get right, they take a considerable degree of dexterity to get them all exactly the same size, with enough filling to make them melt in the mouth but not explode in the pan. They need to be crisp on the outside, golden brown and perfectly fried, with a yielding, buttery softness that penetrates into stringy cheese. Very well done.
The puddings were beguilingly simple: a hot Chisenbury damson clafoutis melting a nutty and fragrant Amaretto ice cream and a voluptuous Valrhona chocolate cremeux with cacao crumbs and fleur de sel leaving a crunchy, salty, rich and velvety taste on the palate. In the canon of patisserie challenges a good cremeux is right up there with a good mousse and a good ice cream. It is difficult to make a cremeux rich but not cloying, creamy but not over bearing. The sea salt is an excellent foil, here, and the texture of the cacao crumbs adds bite and counterbalance to the overall softness. Notice the presentation of the pudding, in a plain, ceramic soup pot.
The Head Chef Patron at the Red Lion, Guy Manning, has won many “Good Food Guide” accolades, but the greatest reference point of all is the fact that people do drive from many miles around, in this flat and sparse landscape, to eat at his table. It takes a great deal of knowledge, experience and focus to cook food that may seem very rustic and simple, but is actually highly accomplished and beautifully done.
In the recent Good Food Guide recipe book he said “I always had an ambition to be a pub chef working with that style of food and doing the very best that you can.” He has fulfilled and exceeded his ambitions at the Red Lion. We are sure the locals pray he stays: a pub like this adds great wealth to a village.
All around us the regulars sit reading the paper, enjoying their pint, their glass of wine or their lemonade: this is a local, family drinking tavern of choice. You can dine in the bar area, which is more communal and chatty, or there is also a separate dining room area with wooden benches and bigger tables.
Stowford, the friendly pub dog will come and rest his face on your lap, his chestnut eyes looking with determination at you, tail wagging and nose pointed in the direction of the main course. “Please do not feed Stowford” the menu implores. With food as good as this, sorry Stowford, you are not even getting a crumb.
The Red Lion
Pewsey SN9 6AQ
Telephone: 01980 671124
Follow the team on Twitter: @Redlionfreehse