The Bell Inn, Lyndhurst
The Bell Inn is to be found in pretty, popular Lyndhurst in the New Forest, with its bustling shops and restaurants; an extremely suitable establishment for a lunch or dinner after a day exploring the paths, woodlands and meadows of the New Forest and admiring its flora and bold and abundant fauna. We were fascinated to discover that the inn has been in the same family for over 250 years, and that it was the original coach stop between Bournemouth and Southampton. No doubt weary travellers were as royally fed and wined then as today.
We found our way through from the car park at the rear first to the bar area, with its flagstone floors, cosy tables and a rather impressive and huge, elliptical and smart-looking bar, where we were greeted warmly and offered a drink – although we declined, preferring to go straight through to our table in the restaurant with the wine list instead.
The restaurant itself aims at cosiness but is slightly let down in its aspiration by the utilitarian tables and chairs – the former undressed and wooden but slightly scraped and chipped at the corners; the latter faux leather – and by the fact that the fireplace, with its impressively hefty wooden lintel – is not functional, although laid with several decorative logs. It’s curious how a room seems to lack a soul without a fire blazing in the hearth or stove, and this was perhaps rather brought home to us by those lifeless logs.
The room otherwise attempts to be as welcoming and warm as possible, with a strong rural theme – original beams line the walls and ceiling (we were told that this was the oldest part of the building) and antique service bells are an interesting and attractive decoration on the walls (although these are not placed according to their original context). The walls are a warm reddy pink, with a beige colour below the dado rail. Lighting is by way of old wall lamps that offer sufficient lighting without being too harsh. The pictures, too, are generally interesting and attractive, with paintings of riders, and some more fascinating and appealing historical prints of castles, churches and houses; while on the window sill at the far end of the room and on a bookshelf are clay owls, pheasants, hares and squirrels – the latter two book-ending some ancient tomes (whose lure, as usual, I had to work hard to resist). Tealights flicker in little marble-effect pots on the tables, which are also adorned with flowering kalinoe plants and appropriate cutlery, along with decent linen napkins. Put in a blazing log fire and some rustic round pine tables and one would have a very cosy space indeed; or add crisp white linen over the tables for a more formal yet still warmly enveloping effect.
The service – or at least Joe, the chap who solely looked after us – impressed us greatly. He was friendly and informative, but professional first – ensuring that he fully informed us about the menu (specials, items not available); and he returned frequently but not intrusively to the table to bring items or check that all was well. We were delighted with our appellations – rather than the usual “guys”, we were properly addressed as “Sir” and not even “Madam”, but “Ma’am”. Top marks.
The menu is good – it doesn’t try to offer too much but nevertheless has a good range of items with some snacks, eight or so starters and a similar number of main courses, as well as further pub classics; there is also a rather tempting array of side dishes. The wine list is also pretty good, with full information, including country of origin and descriptions of the beverages on offer to facilitate decision-making. A goodly number of wines are offered at a pleasing range of prices, from the very affordable through to special occasion wines; these also cover an excellent range of countries and grape varieties. I chose a Californian Zinfandel, Sebastiani 2013, which was a deep, dark purple colour with ruby hint and slightly shy nose of dark bramble fruits and a hint of liquorice. It needed to breathe and soften; but when it fully came into its own was dark and rich with a good bite of spice – pepper and an intimation of chilli, black woodland berry fruits (but no actual wood) and again that hint of liquorice.
We ordered some bread, and were shortly brought a board with four little loaves on. The bread of the day was coriander bread, and it was served with garlic butter and salsa verde. The bread was very good: it was not too chunky and so broke without any real effort, and although one was hard-pressed to detect the coriander, it had a good crunchy crust and a soft but elastic crumb. The mineral water that we ordered was New Forest spring water, rather than something flown down from Scotland or another far-flung location, as one all too often finds. We heartily approved.
I commenced my meal with the cheese soufflé, which was delicious – gloriously light and fluffy – almost rising off the plate, and which was served alongside some leaves, pears and candied walnuts – the latter offering an excellent contrast of texture as well as taste. The dish as whole worked fabulously well. My husband’s carpaccio was very delicately flavoured; the meat sliced suitably thinly, which allowed the texture and the flavour to be fully appreciated. It was served very simply, with crispy and crunchy salad items and leaves.
For my main course I had chosen the wild boar chop, which was served with cassoulet with wild boar sausage. The boar chop surprised me with the whiteness of its meat – it was more akin to pork in flavour and texture; not at all gamey, nor as dark and complex as I had expected. Yet it was nevertheless a very nice piece of meat, and well-cooked. The cassoulet sported a mixture of beans and I found it slightly too much on the intensively tomato-y side. Consequently, I stole much of my husband’s dish: pork loin, which was presented with creamed sprouts and a rather lovely mashed potato puree. The meat itself was of the highest quality and was beautifully tender, very succulent and nicely cooked. The creaminess of the sprouts and potato complemented the pork well; and on the whole, this was an excellent dish, with the proportions and the flavours perfectly judged.
For dessert we shared the dark chocolate mousse, with was served with gorgeously crumbly and very short (as, indeed, shortbread should be) shortbread sprinkled over the top in chunks. The mousse itself was rich, but not overindulgently so. It worked extremely well with its complements, and especially with the extra double cream that I had ordered, without which it may have been rather overpowering. I asked for a dessert wine to accompany the mousse. This – a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc – was slightly sharper and less unctuously golden than I am accustomed to and was served very chilled indeed (almost to the extent where the flavour was deadened), but was absolutely fine and cut through the sweetness of the dessert very well indeed.
We finished the meal with a latte and tea: Mr Marshall-Luck deemed the latte perfectly acceptable if nothing special; while my tea was actually rather fine. Before leaving, Joe showed us some of the old black and white photographs of the village and pub which line the walls of the bar – including, rather charmingly, one of his grandfather as a young boy, holding a horse to be shod – a really lovely touch.
On the whole, we had had a highly relaxed and convivial evening, with some excellent food, fine drinks and impressive service – and I wholeheartedly recommend The Bell Inn to anyone visiting the area.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic