There may have been a welcome break in the wet and windy weather of late but when I visited the Five Bells at Bassingham, just outside Lincoln, it was a cold, bleak, evening with driving rain and hail.
I needed a warm haven. So I grabbed my dining partner, who used to work in the hospitality trade, and headed out of town to seek solace in a country pub which, I had been reliably informed, was quirky, quaint and right up my street.
A short taxi ride later and we pulled up outside the red-bricked exterior of this traditional looking pub, situated on the main street of the village. Smothered in trailing ivy growing around the Georgian-style windows and across the front of the building, with seating outside for warmer evenings, I was already starting to feel at home.
We made our way around to the entrance, making note of the dovecote with a few feathered friends seeking refuge from the horrendous weather.
We pushed opened the wooden door to be met with what could have been a scene from a Harry Potter film. The décor was dark and warm, with swathes of dried hops, clinging to the low beams.
The bar area had a few regulars seated around enjoying the Thursday night steak offer and a friendly bar man showed us to our reserved table, in the elevated restaurant area.
Once seated, he brought us the wine and food menus and left us to ponder the extensive a la carte options and get better acquainted with our surroundings.
It is indeed a very unique setting to dine in. Aside from the hops, there are little flourishes everywhere to catch your eye, including individually-styled salt and pepper pots ranging from hens and ducks to VW campers. A lit candle twinkled on every table nestling inside a pretty tea cup.
Behind my friend was a small cauldron and over my shoulder was a black raven, stuffed of course. The pub was a taxidermist's delight – the be-spectacled fox was a particularly fantastic discovery.
When the bartender came back to take our drinks order we opted for a bottle of Merlot, which was delivered promptly with two glasses. Perhaps a little too promptly, as he hurried back behind his bar and we were left to unscrew the wine and pour our own drinks. I forgave him this, as he had customers waiting.
Looking at the menu it was clear this was not your average pub food fayre. There were nine mouth-watering starters to choose from. My friend opted for the goat's cheese stack, served with onion marmalade and bacon on a bed of salad and I went for king prawns in filo pastry with salad and a sweet chilli sauce.
We waited for around 15 minutes, time enough to spot the brasses and witch dolls hiding in nooks and crannies of the pub before our starters came, both served on a slate platter.
My prawns were succulent, the filo pastry crisp but not dry and the sweet chilli dip just tangy enough to let me know it was there but not to overwhelm my taste buds. My friend's goat's cheese stack was a creamy combination of the cheese and sweet caramelised onions, the bacon adding a salty contrast. We finished our appetisers with high hopes for the mains. We weren't disappointed.
My friend had opted for pan fried salmon supreme, served with a cheese and chive sauce and I for the rack of baby back pork ribs, coated in the Bells' own BBQ sauce and served with peas and salad. We both had a side of chips.
My pork ribs, which ran the full length of the oblong plate were cooked to melt-in-the-mouth perfection and the sauce was neither too sticky or sweet. It tasted handmade not mass produced as in some eateries.
The ribs did defeat me however and our attentive waitress wrapped the half I couldn't eat in foil for me to take home without even batting an eyelid. She also checked back shortly after delivering each course to make sure everything was to our liking. This received a silent 'thumbs up' from my fellow diner who was watching out for any service slip ups.
The 'thumbs up' was silent, mainly because my friend was too busy savouring her salmon to speak. It was cooked perfectly with a sizzled golden glaze that was ever so slightly crunchy, sealing in all the flavours. The cheese and chive sauce was creamy, smooth and complemented the fish. Suffice to say, the chips were chunky, hand cut and fluffy on the inside.
Despite having bulging waistbands, we felt it rude not to try the puddings. So, my dining partner decided to sample a classic crème brulee and I the Eton Mess. Bearing in mind how full I was, if I could have got away with licking the sundae glass I would have done. This pudding was a creamy, berry, taste sensation with chewy bits of meringue jostling against the fruit and cream. It was delicious.
The crème brulee was well executed too, with a glossy, golden lid that once the spoon cracked through revealed a smooth vanilla custard that was like velvet. It was served with a shortbread and a drizzle of fruit coulis.
Well and truly stuffed to the gills, we settled up the bill which came in at a shade under £65, including wine and I went home to lie down for a while to let my constitution digest all that I had consumed.
The Five Bells could easily rub shoulders with some finer restaurants. The food is of a much higher standard than its unassuming exterior lets on.
The staff are friendly and attentive, the a la carte menu varied and the unusual interior décor is enough to sustain a game of 'I spy' for at least half an hour. There is also a comprehensive bar menu available, with cheaper prices.
I plan on heading back on a Wednesday or Thursday for the Steak Night, which at £12.95 for a rump steak and a starter or pudding from a pub that can deliver food of this quality seems like a great way to beat the summer blues!
THE FOOD: Goat’s cheese stack, £5.95, king prawns in filo pastry, £6.95, pan seared salmon with chips, £11.95, BBQ baby back pork ribs £14.95, crème brulee £5.75, Eton Mess £5.50. Bottle of Merlot wine £13.50.
FINAL VERDICT: Fantastic food in a traditional, if somewhat eccentric setting, to families looking to keep the kids entertained with ‘I spy’.