The Freemasons Arms, Wiswell



It's a year since my first visit to the renovated Freemasons Arms at Wiswell, a small hamlet outside Whalley in the Ribble Valley.  Though renovation is a bit of a weak word for the transformation which has taken place of what used to be a faintly grotty old boozer with great food and one of the most remarkable wine lists in the country.  All traces of grottiness are now gone and there's a real sense of space in the formerly poky rooms (thanks I presume to the removal of banquettes and the pushing back of the kitchen. Yet it doesn't feel like a flash new renovation.

My first visit to the new Freemasons was seriously marred by incomprehending central European service and a very restricted, pricey lunch menu.

This time we made a pact before going in that if there wasn't a à la carte available, we'd walk out and go elsewhere. Hurrah! No restrictions on the menu. There's an à la carte, a menu gourmand (4 courses, I think), a 2-2-2 "seasonal menu" (i.e. a table d'hôte menu) and tucked away at the bottom of the menu a brief mention of a 7-course tasting menu for £50. Can we have that? Yes, no problem. All a very welcome change from a year ago. Talking to the chef, Steven Smith, after the meal, he'd decided to start doing full service at lunch at the start of 2011.

From the menus you quickly get the impression that this is not going to be food that isn't messed about with, and it's no longer the bargain, especially in wine terms, that it used to be under Ian Martin's ownership. But overall, it's certainly useful in the area. Perhaps not as good as the relentless PR, but I shall return, despite a few faults.

We started with a watercress velouté, which contained a few pieces of smoked haddock and was topped with a cream of smoked haddock poaching milk. On the side was a piece of a smoked haddock fish finger. The fish finger was great - perfectly cooked, nicely seasoned and a good accompaniment. Personally I found the the watercress velouté a bit underpowered on the watercress front, though my companion disagreed vehemently. Maybe I was being unduly put off by the "cappucino" top: this was a laudable attempt not to waste the milk in which the haddock had been cooked, but I found the texture quite unpleasant. Bring back lecithin-stabilised foams, I say. This had been partly set using xantham gum, giving an almost plasticky gummy-gelatinous-catarrh-like texture which I found distinctly off-putting.

A small collop of beautifully cooked foie gras (not easy for such a small piece) was unfortunately marred slightly by being served (and so a little overwhelmed) with what seemed to be the à la portion size of accompanying "rhubarb and custard". The custard element was gummy like the preceding milk top to the watercress soup, but more so, and I struggled to eat mine, because of the texure (not the sweetness which was well in check). Though the combination of foie gras and roast and puréed rhubarb was definitely a winner.

"Lemon sole on the bone" was, of course, not a whole fish. Portion size was spot on for a tasting menu dish: this wasn't a slice across the fish, but a square-ish slab of two fillets with the bones in the middle. An unusual cut, that required a moment of thought how to tackle it, or at least it did when I attacked it the wrong way on and chopped through the bones. My ineptitude aside, the fish was (again) accurately cooked and came with a delicious lemon-beurre noisette and shrimps. Top stuff.

Next came another fish dish: tandoori spiced monkfish. A rather alarming sausage-shaped piece of bright red monkfish had a jolly well judged spicing, though I felt the spicing missed the lift that a bit of char would have given: it would, we both thought, have been better grilled than roasted. But very nice. There was more to the dish than just the monkfish, though it sticks so firmly in the menu that it's outweighed the accompaniments.

When the waitress initially reeled off what the chef was proposing to serve on the tasting menu, I was pleased to hear that the duck dish on the carte would be the main course, though my companion said we'd prefer the slow roast mutton dish. Hang on, no "we" wouldn't. No problem for the waitress, one duck, one mutton. Phew. My duck was (boringly again) beautifully cooked, though as the skin wasn't crisped, I'd have preferred it to have been removed completely. The duck came with a good, light stock-based mead sauce (which gave away the lean on the table as it all flowed to one end of the plate), turnips, some nice little confit leg wantons and, served separately, a really good swede dauphinoise. Really enjoyed this.

Things continued improving with the desserts. First was a pistachio soufflé that was nearly as good as Pierre Koffmann's, no easy feat, particularly when it was a mini tasting-menu-sized soufflé.

Finally came what was billed as a blood orange tart. This came as a couple of squares of a tarte au citron style tart with an almost walnut whip pyramid of marshmallowy Italian meringue, which had also been smeared across the plate and glazed. Really jolly good.

Coffee was good and came with delicious salted caramel chocolates, though I thought the hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top were a bit twee.

A jug of tapwater was placed on the table as soon as we sat down, and good bread was in plentiful supply. I also liked the way the butter had been whipped (with some buttermilk?) and sprinkled with salt, so that it was easily spreadable. I wish more restaurants would pay attention to whether the butter they off with their bread can actually be spread.

We drank a bottle of a white Sicilian IGT: 2008 Regaleali from Tasca d'Almerita.
Citrus, melons and minerality. Quite bright and light initially with fresh blossomy fruit flavours. But fills out a lot especially as it warms from the deep fridge cold at which it was served. There's an attractive scented note that served blind would make me think there was some viognier in it. Good summer quaffer, but with sufficient depth and interest to stand up to a good range of food. It went well with the first four courses, and was particularly good with the tandoori-spiced monkfish. 88/100
A couple of glasses of good Beauolais (sorry can't remember if it was Fleurie or Brouilly, and I didn't catch the details) went with the meat courses.
The wine list is pretty decent overall, though it was a struggle to find the halves as they were all listed in the main body of the list. The half bottle selection is unfortunately (as often) at the pricier end, with many full bottles the price of most of the halves, or not a lot more.

My overall impression of the food was that it was really very good, though perhaps that the kitchen has spent a bit too long reading Caterer and has thrown one too many ideas into the menu: it's just trying a little bit too hard to make its mark. But fortunately the basic cooking skills are at sufficiently high a level to outweigh those minor concerns.  Service was much improved on this visit: more relaxed, friendly and knowledgeable.  Although it naturally cost us rather more this time, value felt much better too.

(March 2011)

The previous visit:

This has been completely renovated and virtually unrecognisable from its previous incarnation under Ian Martin. There's clearly been a lot of money spent here, and that's reflected in the prices, which are on the steep side, particularly for what still claims to be a pub. The lunch menu is split into four sections: starters, mains, sandwiches, salads.

For starters, we had a simple dish of morels and bacon with a fried egg yolk and one of the salads - crab and fennel. If you'd ordered the salad in place of a sandwich, which is clearly how it's intended from the menu layout, I think you would be very disappointed by the small portion. You'd then be very disappointed that the crab didn't really taste very crabby but instead was dominated by mayonnaise and particularly coriander. Very disappointing, and when she asked if we enjoyed it the incomprehending Eastern European waitress was completely lost when she didn't get a positive response. The morels and bacon were fine, with a good light stock-based sauce, but there was no spoon to eat the sauce and none came when requested.

Of our mains, fish pie was fine, if unexceptional and by no means over-generous on the fish. A pork dish was much better - two slices of belly that had been crisped in a pan (no crackling) and a slice of fillet, good stock-based sauce again, some good mash and a nice mixed onion purée. Still no spoons when we asked for them again. Do chefs never eat their own dishes? Why do they make nice sauces but don't provide the means to eat them: you can't eat light and thin sauces in the modern style with knife and fork. Even if you ignore what your mother told you and try to ladle it up with the knife and lick it off the knife, the tiny blades on the knives here make that far too difficult.

One dessert between the two of us - an apple trifle with cinammon doughnuts. An odd mix of light (the airy cream that must have had some lecithin in it to hold it up) and a very cold, somewhat stodgy brown apple purée on top of a vivid, luminous green apple jelly.

With a bottle of a basic white from Masi, the bill was over £70 without tip. Poor value for unexceptional food.
(March 2010)

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Last updated: 27 April 2010