Once a dowdy roadside pub, the Yew Tree Inn has been transformed under Marco Pierre White and head chef Neil Thornley. But the best is still to come, as Tom Vaughan reports
In the days when even the dirtiest spit-and-sawdust pubs are reincarnating as smart, stripped-floorboard gastropubs, few have undergone quite the level of transformation as the Yew Tree Inn in Highclere, Berkshire.
It was saved from its plight as a less-than-successful roadside boozer in October 2005 by local businessmen, who brought in Neil Thornley, previously head chef at the Crab at Chieveley, plus Garry Hollihead's Inn on the Green, and second chef to Billy Read at the Vineyard at Stockcross, to transform it. But despite their best efforts it was soon obvious that this was a harder task than originally imagined.
Then, in December 2005, one of the owners introduced Marco Pierre White to the team. He showed a keen interest in investing and heading up the project and the rest is history. Thornley's initial reaction to this development was disappointment. "I'd planned for a long time to have my own place. But I decided that I could either walk away or take the bull by the horns and see how far I could ride it."
Nearly two years on, and Thornley hasn't looked back. White visits the pub several evenings a week and the two are in constant dialogue about the menu. To boot, their styles of cooking are extremely compatible Thornley's mentors Read and Hollihead both learnt their trade from White.
Not surprisingly, trade has picked up remarkably over the period. The 110-seater restaurant has seen covers double to 600 a week since October 2005, with the average spend at £25 on food alone. It's hard to ignore the fact that the place is a Marco Pierre White venture. His name is on the front of the pub in huge letters and the inside walls are decorated with White memorabilia.
The extensive menu, says Thornley, is 90% White. His ideas and suggestions are followed and tweaked by Thornley. It's broken down into hors d'oeuvres, soups, egg dishes, seafood, roasts and grills and rib-eye steaks.
The hors d'oeuvres feature simple dishes, popular with locals or passing drinkers on their way home. Fresh sardines on toast (£6.95), kipper pâté with whisky served with melba toast (£7.50), herrings à la Baltique with beetroot salad (£7.50) and soft roes on toast with lemon, capers and butter (£6.50).
Likewise, the soups and egg dishes are as much light snacks as potential starters. Soup of mussels (£8.50) or velouté of mushrooms with chervil (£6.50) make up half the soup offering, while fried duck egg with foie gras on brioche (£9.75) is a deft marriage of comfort and top-end food.
The fish offering is aimed at the pub market. Fried haddock with chips, pea purée and tartare sauce (£13.50) and Wheeler's of St James's fish pie (£13.50) cater solidly for those wanting heartily addressed seafood.
On the meat side there's honey roast belly pork, apple sauce and roasting juices (£14.50), confit of lamb à la Dijonnaise (£17.50) and a 10oz rib-eye steak au pouvre noir with grilled oysters (£17.50).
The specials board displays the more expensive produce. Dover sole can come grilled with tartare sauce (£25.95) or meunière with citrus fruits and olive oil (£25.95). Similarly, lobster appears as a special as does venison, most of which White shoots himself.
Game season is a busy time for the restaurant and last year it worked through almost 4,000 birds, all bought on the feather and prepared fresh each service.
The next few months herald a new, exciting direction for the pub. A £250,000 refurb will include the addition of an oyster bar at the back and the opening up of the front to allow more seated dining. Thornley is particularly excited about the oyster bar. "It's for people to drop in, maybe on their own, and enjoy with a pint," he says.
Thornley reckons the oyster bar will prove a huge success in this moneyed area of Berkshire. "I think the idea has always been in Marco's head," he says. "The guy's a genius. He shouldn't have been a chef he should've been an interior designer. He seems to immediately know what people want from a place."
Also on the menu
- Rillettes de canard au poivre vert, £6.95
- Devilled whitebait, £6.75
- Soup of mussels, £8.50
- Confit of duck with olives, £15.50
- Confit of lamb à la Dijonnaise, flageolets à la crème, £15.50
- Fillet of cod à la Viennoise, young spinach, sabayon of mustard £15.50
- Soufflé of raspberries, hot raspberry sauce, £6.50
- Gelée of red fruits, syrup of raspberries, £6.50
- Box Tree rice pudding, compote of red fruits, £6.50
The Yew Tree Inn, Hollington Cross, Andover Road, Highclere, near Newbury, Berkshire RG20 9SE Tel 01635 253360 www.theyewtree.net