Tuesday, 10 January 2017
The Cartford Inn, Great Eccleston
The North West of England has, scattered around its greenest and most pleasant parts, from the Trough of Bowland to the Yorkshire Dales, from Cumbria to Pendle Hill, some of the very best places to eat in the entire country. While the big cities struggle with form and format, lurching nervously from lazy pastiche of the latest London trends to overblown, overpriced Michelin-bait, the country pubs of Lancashire and Yorkshire quietly get on without fuss or fanfare, doing what they've always done, lovely people serving lovely food in lovely surroundings.
It was at a recent lunch to publicise this fact (in Central London of all places) that I came across the Cartford Inn, who served a dish of Fleetwood hake and Morecambe Bay shrimp as part of a Who's Who of fine Lancastrian restaurants, including the Parkers Arms in Newton-in-Bowland and the Freemason's at Wiswell. It was more than enough to have me googling where on earth Cartford was and planning a little trip there over Xmas with my parents from our base in Liverpool.
And, overall, I'm glad we did, although perhaps the place I'd invented in my head thanks to the association with the the best of the Forest of Bowland would never sit well the reality of a large family pub just off the M55 near Poulton-le-Fylde. Because first of all, unlike some of its colleagues at that press event in London, the Cartford Inn does not sit in the breathtaking countryside of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but in the rather more bleak and geographically mundane marshlands east of Blackpool, and the view from the dining room was not of rolling Ribble Valley hills but of an out-of-season caravan park and a silted river.
Still, that's hardly their fault, and all would be well if the food was up to scratch. Things started brightly, with a pretty plate of smoked Mallard breast, powerfully seasoned and not too smoky, with a crisp fried heart and a few dollops of seasonal veg. The flesh of the duck was perfectly pink and moist, and there seemed a good amount of it for the £8 asking price, so I had few complaints here.
Smoked "pink shrimps" (big enough to earn the name "prawns", really) were juicy and plentiful, served with saffron aioli. One thing you can usually rely upon in Northern pubs (even if it's sometimes the only thing) is portion size, and so it proved at the Cartford Inn. Most of them were carrying eggs too, which was a nice little caviar-y bonus. So far so good.
Mains, unfortunately, were a little less exciting. "Braised, roast and confit local rabbit" tagliatelle was a vast mound of meat and pasta, which on the face of it sounds like it might be fun, but you have to be very careful with rabbit to stop it turning dry and chewy and I'm afraid the Cartford Inn were only partially successful on this front. The confit leg was OK but the ballotines of breast (I think) were pretty inpenetrable. Also this was a ludicrously massive portion - what you see in the photo was just one layer of meat & salad and hid enough (decent) pasta to sink a battleship. Full marks for generosity, less for execution.
My oxtail pud was good. Not great, not Hind's Head faultless-perfect-brilliant, just good. There wasn't quite enough gravy inside or out, the mash was a bit dull and the accompanying vegetables a bit over, but it was still comforting and wintery and packed with filling.
I'll admit that once seeing this weird thing arrive at the table the last thing I wanted to do was sample it. So I can't tell you what "Cornbread eggy bread, smoky spicy beans, watercress" tasted like, only that dad ate all of it without too much complaint, even the weird anaemic-looking beans. Mind you, he cooks roast potatoes in coconut oil because he thinks it's healthier so I wouldn't invest too much in his opinion.
Up until this point, service had been friendly and attentive in that easy Lancastrian style, and although the food hadn't been stellar we were still enjoying our lunch thanks to some very reasonable wines and the cosetting of amiable staff. However, as the place filled up it seemed our little table in the corner fell down their list of priorities, and by the time the main courses were cleared, it dropped away completely. We sat for about a half hour waiting for someone to even offer us the dessert menu never mind another glass of wine, before eventually giving up and paying at the till at the way out.
A disappointing end, then, to what could have been a fairly decent lunch. True, the food is hardly in the same league as some of the very best of the North West gastro-titans but neither is it anywhere near the bottom of the league either, and with a bit more of an effort on service I could have given it a much less qualified endorsement. As it is, I'll leave it to you to decide whether it's worth the trip to this bleakish spot on the River Wyre when the same distance the other side of the M6 are some genuinely notable restaurants for pretty much the same money. With much nicer views. Still, it's better than most places in Liverpool.