OK, it's that time of the year again. The moment when – and it does seem to come round annually – I have an argument with myself about whether or not to award a restaurant 10 out of 10. I've never done it before.
To cross this critical rubicon feels bigger than my first spliff or losing my virginity – and certainly more consequential.
The problem is that I think 10 out of 10 is a dishonest score, because it suggests perfection, as if the meal couldn't have been improved. Yet every meal can be improved. Even this one at The Normandy Arms, despite it being the best I've ever had in a pub, and my stand-out meal of 2014.
Dating back to the 15th century, the pub was renamed by previous owners in honour of the Second World War exercises that took place on nearby Slapton Sands as rehearsal before the Normandy landings. It is now run by chef Andrew West-Letford and his charming Hungarian partner, Reka. Wherever you live, whoever you are, and whatever you do, you should visit them in the little village of Blackawton, not far from hippie-infested Totnes, to eat here.
Delicious, affordable, welcoming, warm, skilful, homely, unpretentious, healthy, reassuring, nostalgic, unspoiled and unforgettable, this is as good as it gets for the English village pub today.
There are excellent local ales, and cocktails are £5.50 – even for very strong versions of the classics. But it's the food, at £24.95 for two courses, and £29.95 for three, that will propel you down the A303, past Stonehenge, and then some. Bar one small hiccup on the mains, every dish is flawless.
Starters include a salty, pungent and rich French onion soup; and Loch Duart salmon three ways: inn-smoked, beetroot-cured and fishcake. Each is sublime, but the first of them, firm, moist and smoky, is incredible. There is also salt beef on grilled rye bread with shallots, capers, cornichons and a perfect soft-poached egg that is cooked to the nanosecond; the beef tears apart in succulent strips, and the acidity of the accompaniments is a match made in Devon.
Even better are two other options: beetroot, orange and elderflower salad with grilled goat's cheese and walnut oil (the cheese hot and soft); and potted Devon crab with pickled cucumber on toasted granary bed. The latter avoids the common error of serving toast which is too thick and therefore filling.
The main courses are typical pub fare, but expertly done. Roasted hake loin with cauliflower, hash brown, braised oxtail croquettes and meat juices is remarkable. The hake is flaky and hot in crisp skin, and the croquettes are crisp on the outside and chewy and tender within. A slow-roast pork belly comes with trimmings of spiced red cabbage, baked apple, celeriac and (best of all) truffled pork cheek.
There are also steaks – rump or ribeye – along with pan-fried plaice fillet that comes with delicious pea purée and confit garlic; and a haunch of venison that is the best winter warmer I've had in ages: the meat tender with pommes salardaises, stuffed Savoy cabbage, parsnips and red wine sauce.
The only miss of the entire meal is a calf's liver that's been left under the grill for a minute too long, losing its moist interior in the process.
Each dessert is a triumph. I go for a hot chocolate mousse that's really a soufflé, and ask for a dollop of Christmas-pudding ice cream instead of frozen sour cherry parfait. The crème brûlée, sticky toffee pudding, and blood orange and white chocolate trifle are all excellent. The wine list includes decent white, red and rosé options at £15.50.
I married a Devonian, and therefore have spent a lot of time in the south-west of England, most of it eating and drinking. I have eaten in posh places and not-so-posh places in the West Country. I have tried local delicacies aplenty, and imports to match. And I can say, hand on fork, that The Normandy Arms is the best of the lot. It deserves to be a foodie destination all of its own. Had it not been for that slightly overwrought liver, this could have been a first 10 out of 10. I suspect it will be next time I visit – which is to say, as soon as I can get a table and a free weekend.
The Normandy Arms, Chapel Street, Blackawton, Devon, Tel: 01803 712 884 £100 for two, with wine
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