Remember that old TV ad for Croft Original, with the tagline 'One instinctively knows when something is right'? Well, this week's destination is very much a Croft Original kind of place. Not because you might drink pallid sherry there; why would you, when there's great local beer on tap and a cracking wine list courtesy of Les Caves de Pyrene? But because, as soon as you walk into this rural Hertfordshire pub, you instinctively know you're in very safe hands.
It's the little things that reassure. The foodie memorabilia, including a shrine-like display of cookbooks, lining the stripped-back, beamy bar. The plain but tasteful wainscoted room to the rear, suggestive of Georgian austerity, with its scrubbed tables and mismatched chairs. The beaded jug brimming with ice cubes which comes when tap water is requested. The menu bristling with foodie signifiers, from monk's beard and nduja to rare-breed meat cooked in the Josper charcoal oven. And most tellingly, the care that's been taken in bothering to shell the jewel-bright broad beans in a tagliatelle primavera loaded with green veg.
If they know what they're doing, and on the evidence of our almost-faultless Sunday lunch, they most certainly do, that's because the folk at the Fox and Hounds have had a bit of time to get things right. Ten years ago, James Rix, former head chef at Soho's Alastair Little and the Notting Hill gastropub The Cow, decamped to East Herts, and set about turning the moribund Fox and Hounds into the perfect dining pub.
During that time, as far as I can tell, there have been no national newspaper reviews. A food-writer friend tipped me off about the pub, and figuring 10 years was long enough to let them bed in, I stopped there to break a journey north.
The lack of publicity doesn't seem to have dented the pub's fortunes. The car park is crowded with 4x4s, and the dining tables in the bar are crowded with harassed young parents and toddlers on tilt. We retreat from the hurly-burly of the lounge into the deep, deep peace of the newly-refurbished dining room, where the average age tips dramatically towards the other end of the spectrum.
The recent refurb has introduced a new arrival to the kitchen, in the form of a Josper oven, which allows barbecue-style grilling at high temperature over charcoal. Rix, who cooks most services, is obviously conducting a bit of a love-in with his new toy; dishes from it take star billing on his long and sophisticated menu.
Squid emerges from the Josper with an earthy depth of flavour; partnered with an intense herb chermoula, it's a miracle of precision. Ditto the roasted scallops, cooked in the shell and lapped with a briny seaweed butter. Whole gilthead bream also benefits from the high-temperature treatment, the smoky flesh still tight and firm under crisp skin, and needing nothing more than some sweet Jersey Royals and a blowsy salsa verde.
If the Fox and Hounds were still a meeting place for hunters, none of them would be sent away proverbially hungry. These are generously proportioned dishes. The Yorkshire pud, which comes with roast rib of English Galloway beef, is bigger than the head of the child who ordered it (everything on the menu is available in half-portions for kids). Roast leg of English lop pork is on a scale to satisfy Desperate Dan; not just an inch-thick slab of sweet meat, whispering of rosemary under its brilliantly crisp bonnet of crackling, but a mound of mash, fistfuls of black pudding and a swoony cider gravy.
Vegetables, too, are respectfully treated. The seasonal selection which comes as standard features parsnips roasted to a caramelised crunch and silky al dente carrots. Good work with the roast potatoes, too – proper, crisp ones, not the sweaty facsimiles which pass muster in most gastropubs.
Desserts, including homemade salted caramel ice-cream, and a crisp-based almond tart studded with boozy griottine cherries, are also a cut above.
Smiling staff, who actually seem pleased to see us, operate like swans; they're unruffled and friendly on the surface, but we sense a lot of paddling going on beneath the surface. I'm only marking the service down because the meal was erratically paced, with lengthening gaps between courses. But that's not necessarily a front-of-house issue, so I hope they'll forgive me.
We may have lingered longer than we'd planned, but then we'd come for a pub lunch, and experienced a feast. There was nothing sloppy or corner-cutting about our meal. And we ate not one thing that wasn't excellent. How often can you say that, even in the best restaurants, never mind a rural pub? To cut to the tagline, one instinctively knows when something is right. Sometimes it just takes a decade or so to get around to finding it.
The Fox and Hounds, 2 High Street, Hunsdon, Herts (01279 843999). Around £35 a head for three courses before wine and serviceReuse content