True to seasonality and its pub roots, the Freemasons at Wiswell is winning glory for spicing up traditional dishes under chef-proprietor Steven Smith. Neil Gerrard reports
You can't deny that Steven Smith is a man true to his word. Three years ago, when The Caterer last spoke to him for a Menuwatch article, he said he wanted to "one day get up there with some of the big-name pubs".
In 2015, he has achieved just that. The three-AA-rosette pub has taken a slew of awards since he arrived over six years ago and set about transforming what had been a traditional pub in a quiet Lancashire village into one of the best-known dining pubs in the country. This year Freemasons at Wiswell scored 7/10 in the Waitrose Good Food Guide
So what has changed with the menu in that time to propel this 80-cover pub to the next level? "It has certainly refined a lot and the prices have gone up with the quality of product we use," Smith says.
With the average spend now around £60 a head (not including alcohol), Smith uses the very best in his highly seasonal menu. "We cook really seasonally, not just through wanting to cook what is best at that time of year, but also because we have so many repeat customers and it is the best way to keep the menu fresh and interesting," he says.
That said, there is a structure here, and certain staples. Freemasons will routinely, for example, have a soup on the menu, in a nod to the classic soup and a bread roll. It is more complex and unusual than a standard soup and a bread roll, though. In early October it was a soup of roast butternut squash, Lancashire cheese fondue and truffled cheese hot dog (£9.95); the truffled cheese hot dog influenced perhaps by the annual trips to New York made by Smith and front of house manager Agnieszka Tyczka.
Wild hare saddle, roasted over Wiswell Moor pine
Smith takes dishes and flavour combinations traditionally associated with pub food and reinvents them, often with playful and unexpected results. Pugh's Piglet - a "head to toe" pressing of pork with roast scallop, yuzu, radish and coriander, with tandoori roast juices (£16.95) appears particularly outlandish until Smith explains the thinking behind it. "When I first did the Pugh's Piglet dish, I did it with piccalilli," he says. "But now we have the yuzu with the Japanese influence, and the tandoori. I love them both and as a nation we are known for embracing different cultures. If you think about piccalilli, there is the sour pickle - so yuzu; and it is also spicy - so tandoori. There is no conflict there; we have just taken traditional British flavours and progressed it."
There is a good deal of confidence in Smith's cooking and menu choices. "The menu is an evolution of me and what I like to eat now," he explains. "The surroundings of this pub have almost dictated where the food is, but they have dictated it for the better."
Smith doesn't want to forget the Freemasons' pub roots, and among the many events it lays on is a "Chippy Tea", serving battered or breadcrumbed haddock with duck-fat chips, mushy peas and tartar sauce. "It gives that lovely pubbiness and maybe brings in customers who wouldn't normally come," he says.
Asked to name his favourite dish on the menu, he points to the wild hare saddle, roasted over Wiswell Moor pine, loin tartare, parsnip, apple and Stilton, with sauce Grand Huntsman (£32). The roasted hare is brought out in a covered dish shortly before it is plated up and the lid lifted off in front of diners to release the smoke coming from the bed of pine it sits on. "It is not an intrusive smoke, it is actually quite mild," says Smith. "We have done a loin tartare with it to give you both aspects of the meat. Hare is so lean that it is perfect for a tartare."
With its reputation well and truly established, where now for the Freemasons? Certainly, there will be no resting on laurels. "Once we have achieved something we sort of say, look guys, we need to keep pushing on," Smith says. That means, among other things, plans for upmarket accommodation at the pub, and a large kitchen extension that introduces a "developmental dining room".
Smith hopes that this, along with a relentless focus on food quality, will keep Freemasons at the forefront. "If you ask me now what we want to do, we want to be the best pub in the world," he says. Don't bet against him.
From the Á la carte
- Heritage potatoes cooked in bacon dashi, Scottish girolles, crispy hen's egg and Iberico ham £12.95
- Salt-baked white beetroot, English mozzarella, Exmoor caviar, smoked eel, hazelnut and preserved raspberry £13.95
- Herdwick lamb - roast rack and kofta, BBQ Gem lettuce, miso aubergine £24.95
- Native lobster - butter-poached tail, crispy claw wontons, potato cooked in seaweed, blueberries and black pepper sauce £27.95
- Taste of Freemasons (seven courses; per person, whole table only) £70
- The Celebration Menu - to mark being the top pub in the Waitrose Good Food Guide (£15 for two courses, £20 for three courses)
Freemasons at Wiswell
8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9DF