Claudia Blake visits
The Bruce Arms in West Tanfield
As winter fades into spring and the days lengthen, West Tanfield makes a pleasant starting point for a late afternoon stroll. The verges of the road leading down into the village from Masham bristle with lime- green wild hellebores. The banks of the Ure opposite the historic Marmion tower are home to drifts of snowdrops and violets, along with one or two floral rarities like the yellow star of Bethlehem.
The Bruce Arms, on West Tanfield’s Main Street, is one of two village pubs – both now under the same ownership – where you can relax and recharge your batteries. The Bruce has changed hands several times over the years, but some of its contents have clung doggedly to their time-honoured places, including the shotgun mounted over the large stone fireplace and the ancient fishing rod on the wall between the dining room and the bar.
When we last visited, several years back, the high-ceilinged dining room felt a little austere and the service was distinctly hit and miss. Fortunately the new owners have addressed both of these issues. There are more tables than there used to be, and they are nicely dressed with flowers and candles. Along with characterful old rugs, cushions and soft lighting, they contribute to an overall effect that is cosy and welcoming. As for the service, it was just the way I like it: friendly, prompt, informative and unfussy.
Freshly baked bread buns paved the way for our starters. Like the rest of the meal, these were neatly and stylishly presented on good, honest white crockery – a welcome relief from the frustratingly impractical slates and boards that restaurateurs regularly wheel out under the misapprehension that it makes them cutting edge.
My starter was a plump, handsome blue cheese soufflé sitting in a rich, creamy sauce. Great texture – crisp on the outside, with a light, soft centre – but I didn’t pick up much blue cheese flavour and I thought it would have been improved with a touch more seasoning. Fortunately a couple of cleverly chosen accompaniments breathed extra life into the dish: a quenelle of sweet, tangy orange marmalade and a salad of tiny leaves pepped up with a bright, citrusy dressing.
Our other starter, an equally plump fishcake, also came with high-spirited companions – in this case a rich tomato chutney and fine ribbons of soused fennel. Again I would have liked to have had rather more seasoning in the plate’s main event, which was in danger of being eclipsed by its sidekicks.
On to mains, and a plateful of duck breast with hoisin sauce that stole the prize (albeit against tough competition) for best-looking dish of the evening. The pink meat was framed by seared orange pyramids of duchesse sweet potato, interspersed with loose, calligraphic squiggles of spring onion.
Whilst it was pretty as picture, the flavours didn’t dazzle my palate quite as much as the visuals. The duck was tender and cooked to perfection, but the salt cellar that had gone AWOL during preparation of the starters was back with a vengeance, and the meat’s aromatic crust was too salty for my taste. I’m not convinced that sweet potato is the ideal partner for sweet hoisin sauce, and I thought it a shame that spring onion (lots of it, all very pungent) was the only green veg on the plate. Swap the majority of the onion for pak choi and you’d have a much more plausible dish.
Fortunately our other main, rump of lamb with a creamy pea and broad bean fricassee, was a far more harmonious composition. Once again the meat was precisely cooked. The fresh green peas and beans set it off nicely as regards both colour and texture. A decent slab of fondant potato added the finishing touch to a very pleasing picture.
When it came to choosing desserts, I was intrigued by The Bruce’s offer of parsnip and date pudding. Parsnip? In a pud? Well I suppose it works for carrots, so why not give it a go? We also ordered the safer-sounding option of a dark chocolate mousse.
“the service was just the way I like it: friendly, prompt, informative and unfussy”
The parsnip and date pud proved to be a riff on that classic dining pub staple, sticky toffee pudding. As with carrot cake, the contribution of the parsnip was more a matter of texture than of taste, in this case making the end result lighter and fluffier than your run-of-the-mill sticky toffee pudding. It was served with a suitably heady toffee sauce and a globe of distinctly more-ish banana ice cream.
With the chocolate mousse we were back on more familiar territory. Rich, sticky and sensuous, it came in a glass tumbler, topped with fresh raspberries and blueberries, and with a coconut tuile biscuit on the side. It slipped down nicely and there was lots of it – job done!
All in all, then, a very pleasant evening, with only a couple of minor wobbles. The Bruce Arms is shaping up to be a notable landmark on the North Yorkshire dining scene, and a good reason for planning a trip to West Tanfield this spring. Or in any other season, for that matter.
For further information about The Bruce Arms call 01677 470325 or visit www.thebrucearms.com.
What to expect
Imaginative food, simply and stylishly presented.
Cosy former coaching inn with no shortage of period character.
Cheerful and professional.
The bottom line
Three courses cost us just over £31 each, excluding drinks.
Wines by the glass start at £4 (125ml).
We ordered from the à la carte menu, but there are a variety of other dining options, including steaks and a fixed price (‘3-2-1’) menu.
Romantic assignations; days out; indulgent evenings.
In case you were wondering
Yes, there was once an East Tanfield, a short distance downstream. It thrived for many years, but was abandoned centuries ago.
Now scheduled as an Ancient Monument, East Tanfield is one of Yorkshire’s best documented deserted medieval villages, and substantial earthworks mark its site to this day.