The Bell Inn, Anslow, Burton-upon-Trent Restaurant Review

It was an evening of surprises - all pleasant - when we paid a recent visit to The Bell Inn at Anslow on the outskirts of Burton upon Trent.

We were greeted by a smiling Emma Johnson who, with husband and chef Ian, took over The Bell Inn in 2005. Thanks to their hard work, from being rather a neglected enterprise The Bell Inn is now a fine dining restaurant as well as a traditional country inn. The dining room is all cool neutrals, with some squashy brown leather sofas for the all-important menu perusal and large windows down one side afforded a glimpse of a pretty outside eating and drinking area. Apart from the food listing the menu provided some interesting reading matter about Emma and Ian, The Bell Inn itself (including its resident ghost), Anslow village (founded in 1861 and consisting of many farms and cottages once owned by the Mosley family) and the quality and provenance of its ingredients (seasonal and local).

As ever we lingered over the decision-making. There were five tempting starters, priced from �4.25 to �6.25, including the day's soup - parsnip and parmesan. My partner eventually homed in on the seafood platter of crab, crayfish and smoked salmon, while I dillied and dallied among the roasted duck breast with kumquat and mixed leaves, and the salad of haloumi, sun blush tomatoes, olives and pine kernels. My final choice, Galia melon, pineapple and strawberry salad served with balsamic sorbet was partly in the hope of leaving me with more appetite for the delights to come and partly because I couldn't imagine how a sorbet flavoured with vinegar might taste. While we waited for our first courses to arrive, some warm ciabatta and baguette quelled the hunger pangs and we selected a glass each of South African Shiraz Pinotage and Californian Zinfandel to enjoy with the meal.

The seafood platter was a picture, the various elements arranged juicily pink on a shiny black tile. What wasn't immediately apparent, though, was the amazing flavour and texture of the salmon. Hot-smoked in The Bell's own smoke-house, it melted on the tongue. If you're wondering what balsamic sorbet is like, the answer is totally delicious, a perfect complement to the succulent fruits, but completely indescribable. If the purpose of a starter is to pre-tingle the tastebuds it certainly succeeded.

Now primed to expect excellence, we eagerly anticipated our main courses. My companion had chosen seared fillet of beef with a red onion marmalade and oxtail confit, while my own choice was hay-baked rack of lamb on a bed of confit tomatoes with a tarragon dressing. The main courses were served with perfectly cooked and seasoned selection of vegetables, the tiny new potatoes glistening with butter. There was a good choice of alternatives: supreme of chicken on grilled asparagus with a mushroom scented jus; pan-seared calves' liver with mashed potato, black pudding and chargrilled apple; and a tasty-sounding assiette of seafood that included salmon, sole, red mullet, langoustines and mussels, all served in a Pernod and saffron broth. Vegetarians were well catered for with a filo tart of Cashel Blue cheese with grapes and walnuts. Any of these dishes would leave change from a �20 note. The fillet of beef met and exceeded expectations, my sample mouthful of steak oozing flavour, the oxtail confit intense and rich and the red onion marmalade a sweet counterpoint. My rack of lamb arrived, pink and perfect as you'd expect.

When I tell you I've never tasted a piece of lamb so tender I barely had to brush it with my teeth I know you won't believe me, but it was. Emma told me it was cooked sous-vide, literally 'under vacuum', for three hours at 60C precisely, its juices sealed in, then finished in the oven, surrounded by hay to impart a fragrant, smoky flavour. How it remained so pink I don't know, but its texture, not to mention its flavour, was almost a shock - certainly a wonderful surprise.

Although my light starter plan had worked to a certain extent, when it came to the puddings I was still too full to attempt what I'd had my eye on before the meal - the white chocolate and minted Bailey's truffle with chocolate sauce. Instead I dipped into a Tia Maria crme brl�e, a delicate lacy caramel crust covering the liqueur-infused dessert. My partner's lemon bread and butter pudding with crme anglaise was a surprisingly light and zesty finish to his meal. At least we thought we'd finished, but instead of chocolates or mints a shot glass filled with hot melted chocolate surrounded by bite-sized pieces of strawberry, pineapple, grapes, raspberries and mini marshmallows, with cocktail sticks for spearing, arrived with our order of cappuccino and espresso.

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Service was totally seamless, smilingly efficient and starred Emma, supported by young waitress, Kirsty. Chef Ian came out to say hallo, and a nicer, more committed couple you couldn't wish to meet. It wasn't surprising to learn from the menu that The Bell Inn was Taste of Staffordshire's Pub of the Year in 2007 and runner-up in 2008. It was also a finalist in Marston's Cask Ale of the Year award in 2007. With a regularly changing menu of exquisite dishes, a Sunday lunch service, a pre-orderable 'quick lunch', where a three course meal can be taken for �10.95, Emma and Ian seem to have hit on a winning formula.

The Bell Inn, Main Road, Anslow, nr Burton upon Trent DE13 9QD

Tel: 01283 812101

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