After nearly a decade in the world of fine-dining, Mark Sargeant's former head chef Simon Dyer has gone it alone in a cosy Cotswolds pub. Tom Vaughan reports
"Rather than standing here saying: ‘There's a Michelin star here; a Michelin star there', I'd prefer to cook good, hearty food that I'm proud of in a restaurant I've made a success," says Simon Dyer, head chef at the George and Dragon.
And if anywhere is befitting of his wholesome cuisine, it's this stunningly cosy Cotswolds pub, where he took over the running of the kitchen in July. Following stints as Mark Sargeant's sous chef at London's Claridge's under Gordon Ramsay Holdings and working for the chef at his Folkestone restaurant, Rocksalt, earlier this year, Dyer felt it was time to go it alone.
"Mark is very hands-on with his businesses. And while he could let go of the kitchen, he couldn't let go of the menu. I felt it was time for me to put my own food on the plate," he explains.
Hearty dishes "As much as I love doing fine-dining, it was all I did at Claridge's and Rocksalt," he says. "I like good, honest food that still uses Michelin-standard techniques to pack flavour into a dish."
Dyer's menu delivers rustic, hearty dishes at wallet-friendly prices. Take, for example, the venison pie (with meat from nearby Hook Norton, part of Dyer's bid to use as much local produce as possible) and creamed potato, priced at a very reasonable £13.
Starters don't exceed £6, among which the highlight is undoubtedly an arancini (£6). Dyer and his sous chef (the only other presence in the kitchen), cook down a ragÁ¹ of pork and beef, wrap it in risotto rice and breadcrumbs and fry it, and its hearty Italian presence is right on brief. "Small food around here wouldn't take off," says Dyer. "It has to be wholesome and people have to leave feeling full."
Other standout dishes include a burger with smoked Fivemiletown Creamery cheese (£10) and excellent provenance, both in its sourcing and its recipe. Meanwhile, a salad of roasted winter vegetables with buttermilk and mint dressing offers vegetarians a break from the ubiquitous mushroom risotto of other pubs.
"Pastas, risottos… everyone does those as veggie options and vegetarians must be resigned to having them. It can be very boring for them and while vegetarian dishes aren't my strong point, it's something I work hard on," explains Dyer. Roasted seasonal vegetables come with a dressing of buttermilk, goat's curd, thyme, oregano and a touch of vinegar.
To finish, Dyer is proudest of the lemon thyme panna cotta (£6, pictured). "It's cold and creamy, with warm honey madeleines - simple, clean - everything I look for in a dessert," he enthuses.
Already the pub is carving itself a niche, and for the first time in owner Stanley's tenure, the 50-seat restaurant (and 12-seat bar) fill up to capacity on a weekend, with Dyer also doubling the average spend to £25.
Even though the likes of David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson's beloved Chipping Norton is just 10 miles away, the majority of â¨customers want reasonably priced pub grub, and Dyer's well-â¨constructed menu appears to be satisfying demand.
As for aspirations, the chef places the business over and above accolade-chasing. "I'd like to get some rosettes, yes," he says. "And I believe that what I did at Rocksalt, where I picked up two, I can do here. But I'm happy being busy with a restaurant I can be proud of."
Sample dishes from the menu
STARTERS Chilli and coriander crab cakes, spring onion salad £6
Onion and ale soup, Welsh rarebit crouton £5
Chicken and pistachio terrine, toasted brioche £6
Classic fish pie, braised â¨peas & lettuce £12
English Rose veal loin, â¨potato & leek rÁ¶sti, braised celery, blanquette sauce £16
Hooky & peppercorn braised feather blade of beef, â¨new potatoes £12
Plum bakewell tart £6
Chocolate and malt mousse, milk ice-cream £6
Honey and fennel â¨crème brÁ»lée £6
The George & Dragon Church Lane, Shutford, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX15 6PG