Restaurant review: The Black Horse, Brent Pelham

Pan-fried fillet of hake with chicory and samphire warm salad (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Pan-fried fillet of hake with chicory and samphire warm salad (photo: Brian Arnopp) - Credit: Archant

A return – two years on – to the community-saved pub-restaurant in the village of Brent Pelham finds an expanded and much more adventurous menu

Black Horse, Brent Pelham (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Black Horse, Brent Pelham (photo: Brian Arnopp) - Credit: Brian Arnopp

Like many of its kind, the Black Horse in Brent Pelham was a village pub in danger of closure. It was saved by a community effort, refurbished and put back into business with an enhanced food offer. Attracted by the story, Hertfordshire Life first visited in summer 2017 with the historic building, dating in part from the 17th century, in the early days of its new life.

Under new landlord Hugh Cater, brought up in nearby Little Hormead and returning to the area with an extensive hotel and restaurant background, it was, as he said then, still a work in progress. 'We're working on finding out what works and what doesn't and we'll act accordingly,' he added. It was time for a return visit to see what happened next.

As we noted back then, the menu was 'much as expected', with a couple of extra flourishes such as a pulled pork spring roll with barbecue sauce and apple slaw among the starters and a halloumi, spinach, chilli and onion jam burger as a vegetarian option in the mains. It is the menu, with 2017's head chef Tom Parcell still in charge, that signifies the major change in the intervening two years. It is now bigger and much more adventurous, which says something about its audience.

Traditional interior of the Black Horse (photo: Brian Arnopp)

Traditional interior of the Black Horse (photo: Brian Arnopp) - Credit: Brian Arnopp Images

The list changes regularly but on the night we visited, the pre-meal nibbles, for instance, included mixed olives with not just pickles but cornichons and garlic (£3). A chicken and black pudding terrine (£7.50) with homemade piccalilli and ciabatta crostini beckoned from the list of six starters, while a vegetarian option, an often-neglected item, among the main courses was asparagus, tofu and spinach ravioli (£13), served with asparagus purée, sautéed wild mushrooms and a red and white chicory salad. The Black Horse is also still notable for a distinguished wine list curated by London-based sommelier Ellie McIndoe.

Faced with more choice than expected, we began with two of the adventurous dishes, the first being beer braised shallots (£6, far right) with pickled walnut and pear in a Tribute ale reduction. For the second, sautéed king prawns (£9) on an asparagus and pea risotto was severely tempting for my companion but lost out narrowly to wild mushroom in a cider and cream reduction (£7, opening page), served with thyme croutons. The shallots were light to the taste and enhanced by the pear to make a refreshing late springtime treat while my companion waxed enthusiastic about the mushroom dish as full of flavour with an edge supplied by the cider but smoothed out by the cream - a clever combination.

Several of the main courses also offered a touch of the exotic in among the steaks and burgers. Roast lamb rump (£18.50) looked straightforward enough but was accompanied by salsify and wild mushroom plus a Jerusalem artichoke purée and a jus of red wine and rosemary. Another standout vegetarian dish was a burger of shredded halloumi, carrot, courgette, chili and spring onion (£11.50) with fries and harissa aioli.

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It was a hard choice, but I stuck with an old favourite, pan-fried fillet of hake (£17, above), attracted by its accompaniment of a chicory and samphire warm salad in addition to pea purée and dill crushed new potatoes with chorizo. A relatively straightforward dish properly executed and presented, so no complaints there. Across the table, seafood linguine (£15.50), with king prawns, squid and crab enlivened by chili, garlic and spinach went down equally well and went straight on the top 10 listing.

Dessert choices at £6 each included rum brownie with salted caramel ice cream and butterscotch sauce; creamy rice pudding with a warm plum compote; our choice of apple and plum crumble with creamy vanilla ice cream; or sticky toffee pudding, also with creamy vanilla ice cream and toffee sauce. An exotic cheese board from The Cheese Plate in nearby Buntingford, with each item carefully described, was also on offer at £8 with celery, chutney and water biscuits. Choices included La Rozay, a hard Spanish goats' cheese, and Baron Bigod, a creamy, white bloomy-rind cheese and the UK's only raw milk farmhouse brie.

All told, a satisfying return visit made all the more enjoyable for seeing the Black Horse in fine fettle for its continuing new life and, judging by comments from our fellow customers, popular in its home village too.

The cost of this meal for two was £67.60 including tip. This is an independent review by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.

The Black Horse, Brent Pelham SG9 0AP. 01279 778925

3 of a kind

Richard recommends three more Hertfordshire village pub-restaurants

- Fox & Hounds

Like the Black Horse, saved from redevelopment and newly reopened after a major refurb. Chef-patron Brett Barnes overseeing an inventive menu including guinea fowl breast 'with a little kiev', plus 45-day aged Dexter bavette steak.

High St, Barley, nr Royston SG8 8HY. 01763 802505

- The Cricketers of Redbourn

Run with enthusiasm by Colin and Debbie Baxter with head chef Fahri Bhajram in charge of a wide-ranging food offer. Look out for goats' cheese mousse or confit lamb croquettes among starters and (seasonal) pan-fried Skrei cod in the mains.

East Common, Redbourn AL3 7ND. 01582 620612

- The Boot

Now in its 280th year with a clutch of awards including a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence for 2018, the Boot is familiar territory for village pub fans with real ales galore and a classic menu including beer-battered fish and hand cut chips and a full Sunday lunch.

The Green, Sarratt WD3 6BL. 01923 262247