THE charmingly named Rat Inn is the sort of characterful, cosy tavern that I wish was my local. Well, it is BBC MasterChef competitor James Burton’s local – which is how, in a roundabout way, we came to visit.
Chatting to chef James, who lives near Wall in Northumberland, about his stint to date on the culinary show, it turns out he likes to drop in to the Rat for a steak and a tipple.
The budding masterchef, who has made it to the semi-finals of the cooking show presided over by Michel Roux Jr, will next be seen battling it out on BBC2 on December 3.
We were prompted by James to check out the Rat Inn, which is also a regular in many respected eating-out guides, including the Good Food Guide 2013 and Michelin’s Eating Out in Pubs Guide, 2013.
I’ve been meaning to visit for ages and it is well worth the detour if you’re in the vicinity of Hexham. It’s actually only a matter of a few minutes’ drive from the main roundabout approach to the town.
The characterful old charmer occupies a bucolic, tranquil hamlet location, with excellent views over the Tyne Valley.
The former drover’s inn dates from the 1700s and is run by Phil Mason, at the kitchen helm, and Karen Errington, who place a big emphasis on local sourcing. The pair previously ran the critically- acclaimed Green Room restaurant in Hexham.
The cosy lounge bar with its crackling log fire, stone-flagged and wooden floors, intimate lighting and newspapers to hand was a sight for sore eyes the Saturday lunchtime we swung by.
Beams draped in fairy lights and woollen throws on chairs in the bar added to the inviting feel. It’s the kind of place that invites you to slow down for a few hours, kick back and chill.
A poke around revealed a restaurant off the bar, closed that lunchtime, and a sunny conservatory-style dining area with valley views.
Blackboard menus in the bar offered the likes of West Mill Hill’s lamb chops, breast of pheasant and peppered local steak. A separate bar menu offered lighter snacks and sandwiches.
Another chalkboard spells out the provenance of that day’s meat – the beef from Hexham, the lamb from Langley on Tyne.
There is plenty to catch the eye – I liked the interesting black and white framed prints of shaggy coos and sheep.
A Chilean sauvignon blanc, £4.25, and a drop of Wylam’s Gold Tankard, £3, with Diet Coke for the teen, £1.20, set the ball rolling.
The teen’s starter of spiced carrot and swede soup, £4.50, was steaming hot and, as Nigel Slater might say, delivered a hug in a bowl.
The smooth soup was full of sweet and comforting root veg flavour and warming, subtle spiciness. She dipped in chunks of rustic brown bread.
I shared a simple platter of paper- thin Serrano ham with pickle and hunks of brown bread, £6.50, with the other half.
The accompanying green olives were stone cold and the mixed leaves still a touch damp – minor niggles – but the bread was excellent. We piled on the ham and excellent home- made pickle. A nice enough nibbly appetiser and we were pleased to note it came with generous cubes of freshly-cut butter.
I was in the mood for a big meaty main and roast breast of pheasant, with mini pheasant sausages, leek and potato cake and braised red cabbage, £13.95, was a hearty, winter warmer.
The breast meat was substantial and tasty. There was even a piece of shot in the sausages, proving authenticity, which fortunately did no damage to the teeth!
The potato cake, a lovely comfort food side, was browned to crispy perfection. The sweet and spicy red cabbage a tasty and colourful accompaniment. And all was drenched in dark, rich delicious jus.
Across the table, peppered Northumbrian rump steak with roasted tomato, watercress and chips, £13.50, was a good-value, satisfying dish.
The meat was pink in the middle, as requested, the creamy peppery sauce standout for its exceptional flavour. Hubby wasted not one drop! The big bunch of peppery watercress on the plate just right for accompanying this bold, meaty offering. The pile of chunky chips, twice-cooked we reckoned, were beautifully crisp. We all tried them for research purposes.
The teenager’s choice of child-size spaghetti with wild mushrooms and leeks, £5.95, sounds such an ordinary dish, but had one of the tastiest pasta sauces I’ve tried.
The punchy mushrooms, peppered throughout the dish, added earthiness, and the rich, creamy, cheesy sauce, was flavour packed.
Truth be told, we were really full, but lunch had been so good we couldn’t resist one of Phil’s home-made puds.
We opted for chocolate and coconut bread and butter pudding, £5.50 – and three spoons!
It came surrounded by a moat of single cream and turned out to be a terrific, old-fashioned bread and butter pud. None of us could detect any chocolate or coconut in the dish, though, and wondered if it was an out-of-date chalkboard mention.
No matter, this was near perfection – a rich, buttery, eggy, raisin-packed offering. A satisfying and stick-to-the ribs in a good way, comfort dish.
It was a simple dish, but cooked exceptionally well, with care and expertise. Which aptly summed up the whole lunch.
It was not a cheap lunch at £58 for the three of us but for food of this calibre was really deserving of the price tag.
We can’t wait to try out the spring and summer menus, preferably with a slice of sunshine in the beer garden.
Address: The Rat Inn, Anick, Hexham, Northumberland
Tel: 01434 602814
Open: Tuesday-Saturday, lunches noon-2pm; dinner 6pm-9pm; Sunday noon-3pm.
First impressions: Characterful 18th Century country pub in stunning rural location overlooking Tyne Valley. Attractive beer garden offers scope for summer dining.
Welcome: Warmly greeted.
Style, design and furnishings: Rustic charmer. Stone-flagged and wooden floors, woolly throws over chairs, exposed stone walls, fairy lights and open wood fire.
Cuisine: Regional and classic British cooking.
Service: Good. Chatty, friendly staff.
Value: On the pricey side but represents excellent value.
Disabled facilities: Partially accessible.