Belinda Dillon finds serendipity of the gastronomic kind just outside Exeter
I'm not much of a believer in kismet, but sometimes the universe seems to deliver exactly what you need, right when you need it. On entering Ide, near Exeter, the sight of The Huntsman Inn's pretty, thatched exterior promises respite after our long, arduous week, so it is with a joint sigh of relief that we discover the compact interior to have withstood the character-shedding trend of stripped-pine gentrification that often accompanies the 'dining pub' moniker. Here, the atmosphere is easy-going and informal, the Friday night regulars enjoying a pint at the bar, while the tables are filled with a mix of locals and visitors. It offers exactly the welcome one hopes for from a village pub: like walking into a big, warm hug from a favourite aunty.
"We're a pub that does good food," says manager Andy Carson with what turns out to be charmingly humble understatement, because the food, courtesy of chef Jason Turton, is very good indeed. My partner's starter of smoked salmon is suffused with a satisfying tingly warmth by the bloody Mary prawn cocktail accompaniment, and topped with a frisky flourish of beetroot sprouts. My goats' cheese and beetroot frittata is similarly splendid, the earthy flavours suspended in a delicately fluffy egginess. I'm happy to report that vegetarians need not fear The Huntsman, for he has bagged you enticing choices on this inventive menu. The main course option of white bean and leek cassoulet nearly gets my vote before Andy alerts me to the West Town Farm steak on the Specials Board...
And what a happy diversion. The steak is silkiness incarnate, pertly pink and subtly emboldened by a mushroom medley fricassé; the triple-cooked 'fat' chips mean I'll never be able to look at a skinny fry again with anything other than contempt. My only beef? It is served on a wooden board, which ranks pretty high on my list of culinary aversions (although, unlike the many others I've rejected, this board does at least have a full-perimeter indentation to collect the juices). Andy is swiftly accommodating in my request for a good old-fashioned plate, however, and at no point am I made to feel like a kill-joy. On the other side of the table, my partner's brace of pork – seared tenderloin and slow-braised belly – is fall-apart flavoursome, the swipe of pommes purée a buttery embrace. All beautifully presented, it is a drool-inducing delight.
The desserts are immensely pleasurable: the Ide Town Mess is a gloriously berry-heavy take on the classic, and the chocolate torte and brownie combo should be labelled 'Danger: extreme indulgence'. I am very glad of the 2½-mile walk home...
As you'd expect, 'local' and 'seasonal' are key words in The Huntsman's vocabulary and food miles are satisfyingly low (my steak comes in at under 0.8). If the quality of our experience is anything to go by, those food miles will be inversely proportional to the distance people are prepared to travel to savour Jason Turton's fantastic cooking. Better get planting some trees...
Published 1 September 2013
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