A father and son have given themselves the goal of gaining Michelin recognition for their 15th-century Wiltshire pub. James Stagg reports.
Tucked away in a corner of the Cotswolds, a traditional country pub is offering a touch of innovation thanks to Tony Robson-Burrell and his son Jack.
The Wheatsheaf has been serving beer to Oaksey villagers for more than 600 years and the pub retains many historical echoes. A lintel over the fireplace is reputed to be the remnants of an ancient coffin lid, while carved crosses on the beams remain to ward off witches.
Though these features - along with a skittle alley - remain, a recent refurbishment has updated the interior, and the menu has also undergone an overhaul. Behind the bar, which offers a range of real ales and home-made snacks such as devils on horseback and Scotch duck eggs (both £2.50), is a modern restaurant area featuring contemporary leather chairs and exposed wooden tables surrounded by food-inspired prints by local artist Peter Lavery.
Chef-patron Tony Robson-Burrell has run the pub for almost six years, but only since the overhaul has his son joined the operation, first potwashing then, after college and a placement at London's Ritz hotel, in the kitchen.
Robson-Burrell had previously run the business alongside a head chef, before buying another pub in the area - the Bakers Arms - and struggling to maintain standards at the Wheatsheaf.
"I had the pub five-and-a-half years and it was working well, but I took my eye off the ball when our head chef at the time convinced me to buy another pub, which was a higher-turnover business," he explains. "But the other pub's now sold, and I'm concentrating on returning the consistency here."
Reinvesting the proceeds into the Wheatsheaf, Robson-Burrell has placed the emphasis at the pub firmly on the food, setting him and his 17-year-old son some tough targets along the way.
"We'll certainly be here together for the next five years," he says. "And we'll try and push the place on and gain a Michelin star together."
Both a bar and restaurant menu are available, with the former featuring what has become a firm favourite: rump steak burger and Wheatsheaf fries (£10). A pure rump steak burger made from longhorn mince sourced from Huntsham Court Farm, it has been twice named England's Best Burger by the English Beef and Lamb Executive. "It's the most requested dish. There'd be uproar if we took that off the menu," Robson-Burrell says.
The restaurant menu is what he describes as "traditional with a modern twist" and centres on top-quality produce, sourced as locally as possible, with everything - including chutney, breads and ice-cream - made on site.
Each dish has a focus on hearty British flavours, delicately presented. A Ryeland lamb and chicken liver terrine (£7) consists simply of braised lamb, cooked off in chicken livers and pressed with spinach. It is served with well balanced home-made chutney and a rich, tender onion brioche.
The traditional theme is maintained in the main courses, where choices include braised steak and kidney suet pudding with honeyed parsnip purée (£14.50) and Indian-spiced plaice with French fries and pea purée (£14.50).
Both are, indeed, traditional with a twist. The suet pudding features slow-braised longhorn beef with kidneys, over which is draped honey-roast carrot purée, with deep-fried cauliflower perched on top. This is accompanied by pak choi and a rich reduction. "It's a little bit the Orient meeting an old British classic," says Robson-Burrell.
Desserts follow the same route. Roasted rhubarb and nut crumble (£6) is served with a subtle duck egg ice-cream, while bread and butter pudding (£6) is presented on a large slate with vanilla ice-cream and livened with a lick of lemon jelly.
With Jack in the kitchen, Robson-Burrell is confident the burgeoning father-and-son partnership is set for success. "He's got enough experience now that I'm happy that, if I'm not here, he's more than capable enough to cope," he says.
The Wheatsheaf at Oaksey, Wheatsheaf Lane, Oaksey, Wiltshire SN16 9TB. Tel: 01666 577348
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
â- Ryeland lamb and chicken liver terrine, spiced tomato chutney, onion brioche, £7
â- Wheatsheaf hot smoked salmon salad, caper and lemon dressing, £7.50
â- English spinach and Isle of Mull Cheddar pie, Wheatsheaf fries, £11.50
â- Slow-roast Middle White pork, black pudding cake, smoked apple sauce, £14.50
â- Fillet of Cornish pollock, roasted vegetables, pesto and red wine sauce, £14.50
â- Dark chocolate fondant, rum-soaked raisins and rum ice-cream, £6.50
â- Dark chocolate pot, chocolate chip cookie, £6.50
â- Roast hazelnut cream, hazelnut toffee and caramel sauce, £6.50