Lucifer the rooster scratches around under an apple tree out the back, Darcy the dog bustles through a flourishing herb and vegetable patch, and a clothes line flaps with blue-and-white striped chefs' aprons. The smell of baking bread drifts through the front bar, as a red-haired girl pulls a slow pint of bitter. If this isn't the country pub of your dreams, then I give up. The Pot Kiln looks like All Creatures Great & Small recreated in Disneyland by the director of Babe. At the bottom of the garden, the old brick kiln is now a brewery supplying the pub with four on-tap real ales, including a mellow, perfectly pitched West Berkshire Brick Kiln Bitter.
But could this fair part of England's green and pleasant land be under threat? Last year, the Pot Kiln came up for sale for only the third time in its 300-year history and was sold to - God forbid - a celebrity chef. Now, most celebrity chefs I know wouldn't have looked twice at this modest little brick building tucked away in the middle of nowhere at the end of a nondescript country track. Hell, most of them wouldn't have been able to find it in the first place. But Mike Robinson, known for his appearances on BBC's Saturday Kitchen and UKTV Food, couldn't help himself. He grew up a mile away, and it was at this very pub where he had his first pint, a momentous milestone in the life cycle of every self-respecting British male.
So, after a fair amount of hard graft and extensive but sympathetic remodelling, he and wife Katie now find themselves starring in a real-life sequel to The Good Life. Nervous locals who feared that they would be losing a perfectly good, old-fashioned drinking pub need not have worried. Photos of the 1933 Yattendon cricket team and the 1951 Frilsham football team still hang in pride of place on the walls of the cosy wood-lined bar; neighbours still sit together on the rickety, rotting picnic tables, nursing pints; and there is no sign of a bright jukebox, a flashing poker machine or even a low-tech pool table. Even the recently extended dining area still looks like a proper pub dining-room, with its plain pine tables, apricot walls, sensible carpet, hunting prints and mounted deer heads.
Look closer, however, and there is a subtle upgrading of the pub aesthetic, with gleaming designer cutlery, finely wrought, stemless Riedel wine glasses, and little pots filled with cracked pepper and Maldon sea salt. And, hidden away in the heart of the pub is a brand new, professional kitchen, glamorous enough to host a TV cooking series, which is exactly what it has been doing in recent weeks (Heaven's Kitchen goes to air on UKTV Food in mid-October).
While lots of other pubs claim to use local produce, Robinson really means it, to the extent that few animals can feel safe within a 20km radius. The crayfish in the bisque comes from the nearby Kennet river; the trout in the hot-smoked trout salad was caught two days earlier in the Lodden, and the muntjac - or barking deer - in the ragu with tagliatelle was shot by mein host on one of his weekly stalks.
Even in high summer, there is a distinctly autumnal, gamey feel to the Pot Kiln's menu, including a knockout salad of seared wood pigeon and black pudding (£5.50) - supple, velvety slices of roasted and rested pigeon sit on a scattering of leaves, surrounded by a delicious rubble of bacon lardons and blood-pudding bits. It's both pretty and gutsy, with flavour to burn. And a house-smoked trout salad (£6.25) is just that: a good length of fish, firm from the smoking, served pub-simple with lemon, salad leaves and lots of tiny capers.
Wine consultant Joe Wadsack has assembled an intriguingly mixed bag of goodies that run from £12.50 to £50. His wine notes are sharp and funny, and the choices are right for the "European country cooking" brief. A muscular Rully Rouge from Albert Sounit (£34) is a natural with the good-natured, no frills, rustic appeal of wild rabbit, a four-hour braise scented with rosemary and garlic (£14.75). This is a dish with no airs and graces, just tender rabbit and good new potatoes tumbled in aromatic pan juices.
The most restauranty dish is a pavé (tile) of rump (£14.50), a thick contrefilet of perfectly cooked beef, crusty outside, crimson inside, plumped on top of a huge whoopee cushion of divinely moist potato roesti that sucks in the rich, meaty juices like a sponge. Vegetables are well-cooked if unimaginative; a side dish of sliced beans and baby carrots in butter. A wedge of deep-dish, toffee-topped lemon tart (£5) makes a good clean finish; a small individual tarte tatin (£5), that looks the part, but is tainted with a nasty burnt taste, doesn't.
The staff are young, bright and happy chaps and chapesses; the food-savvy locals book out the 45 seats almost every night; and there's not a sniff of pretension about the place. In other words, the Pot Kiln is the kind of country pub you always hope to find, but rarely do. Given the instructions on the website (www.pot kiln.co.uk), you may never actually find it at all, but it's good to know that it's out there, somewhere.
14 The Pot Kiln Frilsham, Yattendon, Berkshire, tel: 01635 201 366. Lunch and dinner daily. Dinner around £80 for two, including wine and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: Other TV chefs' restaurants
Tony Tobin at The Dining Room 59A High Street, Reigate, Surrey, tel: 01737 226 650 Well known from his appearances on Ready Steady Cook, Tobin has given Reigate its favourite big night out. The space is plush, yet welcoming, the service is formal and the food adventurous and international. Choose from spring rolls with sweetcorn chowder, venison sausages with garlic mash and crisp aromatic duck with noodles.
The Angel Coaching Inn & Grill High Street, Heytesbury, near Warminster, Wiltshire, tel: 01985 840 330 This 16th-century inn is one of six restaurant ventures in which Saturday Kitchen's Antony Worrall Thompson has an active interest. Here, he works with head chef Paul Kinsey on a menu based on local produce. The food runs from simple grills, such as a 9oz pope's eye and an aged Scottish burger, to tempura scallops with Cornish crab coleslaw.
Fifteen Trattoria 15 Westland Place, London N1, tel: 0871 330 1515 It's still hard to get into Jamie Oliver's downstairs restaurant but the newer upstairs tratt is more accessible, with a part bookings/part walk-in policy. Start with a lively spread of antipasti, then move on to a hearty linguine carbonara, or roasted Label Anglais chicken with green beans. Good fun, good people, good atmosphere.
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