All my life I've been obsessed with trains. As a toddler in Chiswick I'd put a plate on my parents' bed and pretend I was driving the District Line from end to end. Later, I'd ring up government offices in school holidays to ask if the Jubilee Line extension was on schedule. Then, with the advancing years of teenagedom, I'd look to history and memorise the features of the grand engines of yore: the Mallard (the fastest steam locomotive)... the Flying Scotsman (the most famous)... the Puffing Billy.
You may have heard of the Puffing Billy through its now outdated colloquial expression: to be "puffing like Billy" meant to be in a hurry. A puffing billy is an energetic traveller. But in fact the Puffing Billy was one of three steam locomotives built in 1813-14 by the engineer William Hedley, an intellectual giant of pre-Victorian England, which has acquired notoriety through being both the first commercial adhesion steam locomotive, and the world's oldest surviving steam locomotive. Either of those accolades is a very big deal for those of us who still read Railways Illustrated; but this two-in-one makes the Puffing Billy very special indeed.
Imagine my glee, then, on discovering that a Station Road in Exton, on the east fringe of the Exe Estuary, played host to a pub with a growing reputation for good grub called the Puffing Billy. I dared to hope this would combine two of my favourite things – drinking and Devon – with two others: eating and trains.
Yet, after daylight hours at least, the place isn't quite oozing railway nostalgia. Perhaps that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, given I discovered that though it had been renamed some years ago, it has very little indeed to do with the famed engine – unlike another pub called the Puffing Billy in Torrington, 50 miles away. Basically, this Exton version is a pub with an expensive, short menu, marvellous and more affordable wine, fine ales, good service, charming staff and endless baloney about locally sourced ingredients.
I know most punters like to be told their ingredients have been locally sourced, but for reasons I've laid out on this page before, I don't. This place lays it on pretty thick.
Sean McBride, the highly rated head chef, gets beef and venison from Dartmoor. On the specials board is a starter of seared River Exe scallops with crispy bacon, poached egg and purée. Perfectly inoffensive, but at £9.95 they're too dear. From the conventional menu's appetisers, Paddy's poached River Exe lobster with saffron arancini, roasted tomato and cucumber frappe (£8.95) merits a similar verdict.
There's also a fabulous main of pan-fried turbot with River Exe mussels – you almost begin to feel sorry for the River Exe, it's doing so much unpaid labour here – and saffron tagliatelle (£14.95), pan-roasted monkfish with lobster and that saffron arancini, together with sweet potato purée – which is a phenomenal whack at £20.95 and disappointingly sliced in the kitchen – and roast partridge with boudin blanc, black pudding, potato fondant and brambleberry sauce. This last offering is £19.95, a fraction too dry but full of rich, soothing and autumnal flavours, and to the best of my knowledge not from the River Exe.
They charge £2.50 for some unexceptional bread and bring boiled vegetables or a mixed-leaf salad with bonus sun-dried tomato with all the mains, and the desserts range from £4.95 for white-chocolate cheesecake or cranberry-and-walnut tart to £5.95 for a dark-chocolate-and-pistachio brownie or, from the specials board, the best sweet plate I've had this year. I'd recommend energetic travellers from across the land came by road, rail or River Exe to sup the smoking-cold chocolate terrine with caramelised bananas and peanut butter ice-cream. The terrine has a velvet texture and is very strong, the banana is sumptuous, and the melting nutty accompaniment binds it all together triumphantly.
I must say that this final victory rather saved the meal from the upper echelons of ordinariness; but then I may be bruised more than you'll be by the absence of a replica of Hedley's giant, glorious beast to greet me at the entrance. This pub, like most pubs, is fine, except for being overpriced.
The Puffing Billy Station Road, Exton, Exeter, Devon, tel: 01392 877 888 Lunch and dinner daily. About £150 for four, including two bottles of wine
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