The Miller of Mansfield
Em Marshall-Luck enjoys a tempting menu
The Miller of Mansfield is set on Goring’s attractive high street, in a chocolate-box pretty area of the Thames Valley not far from Reading. Visitors should be aware that the inn is a popular one and that, with only a few spaces outside the establishment, parking can be a problem. One walks into the warm and convivial bar area of the pub, with its bare oak floors, open fireplaces with logs blazing away, and – when we visited – Christmas decorations. The welcoming atmosphere is enhanced by the friendly and helpful greeting from the small reception desk to the side of the bar.
Our suite upstairs was shabby chic with slightly minimalist design; white painted floorboards, walls and furniture were enlivened by vibrant splashes of colours – purple plush velvet chairs and bright pink cushions, while modern minimalist furniture contrasted with replica Gustavian pieces. The large bed aside, the spacious bathroom with large free-standing bath was the most luxurious element of our suite: although it had the benefit of an extra little room with single bed for young Tristan, our large and relatively empty bedroom, open to the eaves, with all its white and bare floorboards felt just slightly cold and lacking in ambience.
There is no lack of warmth or atmosphere downstairs in the restaurant, where we were seated for dinner by a beautiful old fireplace with greyish painted wooden surround – alas, not lit, but with an impressive cast iron fire screen and with pillar candles, one in an ornate lantern, beaming out a welcome light. The walls are in a honeyed yellow, with just a hint of green; there are pendant lights with tapestried-patterned shades next to the substantial windows (shrouded with translucent blinds after dark), and recessed downlighters further into the room. Tables are bare wood with simple, A-frame-type chairs having comfortable padded backs and seats in a blue-grey. The wall art is rather sparing, as there is not much wall space, but ranges from modern works to a heavily-romanticised view of The Miller of Mansfield (a work that makes no concessions to the rural working conditions that prevailed at the time, the artist obviously having not read – or had chosen to ignore – the contents of the Mayhew Report).
Once seated, we were brought menus and wine lists by the helpful and friendly staff, although we were slightly surprised when, on requesting a pineapple juice for toddler Tristan, he was presented with a pint glass full of said beverage! (Owner Mary threw up her hands in horror when she saw this as she passed our table and immediately demanded that a more suitable vessel was brought.)
The menu brimmed with tempting things to eat – from the nibbles to the five well-chosen starters and mains, with good options for meat eaters, fish lovers and vegetarians alike. A selection of bread was also brought: the white was crunchy on the crust and had just the right amount of resistance in the crumb (successive pieces were commandeered by Young Master Tristan, who is becoming something of a connoisseur of bread); the beef dripping bread was also exceptionally good: much more piquant than the white, as one might expect, and with altogether more substance; sourdough was good; while the walnut and black pepper bread had a real zing to it (and a bite from the pepper) that was most unusual but which worked very well.
We asked for a wine recommendation and were brought an Argentinian Malbec; I was pleased and impressed when we were offered the option of having the wine decanted. It was an excellent recommendation – the wine was dark in colour, nose and flavour, with maturity on the nose and the palate; hints of chocolate and lots of ripe bramble fruits – plump, sweet blackberries, damsons and plums, and a bite of spice – black pepper and a hint of chilli – on the finish. It was also an extremely and delightfully smooth wine, and went very well with the food.
Given that my husband, exhausted after a very long drive, was eschewing a starter, I decided to make up for it by trying both one of the superb sounding nibbles and a starter. The beef croquettes, offered as one of several nibbles, were wonderfully crunchy on the outside with a burst of salt in the crumb and full of gloriously tender and flavoursome meat inside. Served with a moreish garlicy dip, they were perhaps more scrumpets than croquettes but were utterly delicious, whatever the semantics: I would have been more than happy to sit there and eat these all evening long!
My starter of heritage beetroot was extremely impressive indeed: superbly creamy chunks of buffalo mozzarella were interspersed with different types of beetroot – from wedges of golden beetroot through to a gorgeously earthy deep purple puree. The other accompaniments of horseradish cream and an almost cake-like crumb worked exceptionally well, resulting in a dish full of contrasts of flavour, texture and colours; all of which sang together in harmony.
For his main course, my husband chose the roasted local pheasant, which was very good indeed. The meat was firm, yet yielding, and had an excellent flavour – not ‘over-gamey’; and was well-cooked, being moist and succulent. It was accompanied by celeriac, cabbage, trompette mushrooms, and a pear and pheasant sauce, all of which complemented the meat well. I had, unusually, chosen beef (seared Hereford sirloin steak), which, I’m afraid, wasn’t quite as good as my starter. There was nothing wrong with the cooking, which was first-rate, but I felt that the chef had been slightly let down by his supplier, as the meat rather lacked flavour; although it was, like the pheasant, excellently moist without being greasy, and the Armagnac sauce that accompanied the beef was delicious. Chips tasted as if they had been triple-cooked in beef dripping and were extremely crunchy on the outside (perhaps just a little too so for my taste), while remaining fluffy on the inside. These were served with excellent homemade mayonnaise.
We had also ordered an extra side dish of Cavalo Nero, and this was the most delicious example of its kind I have tasted – it helped that it was studded with toasted hazelnuts and, I suspect, rather drenched in butter. Fabulously tasty.
We asked to take desserts up to our room, and the kind staff ferried these, along with tea, coffee and the rest of our wine, up for us. Mr Marshall-Luck had chosen the Autumn Apple – apple and cinnamon, with an apple sorbet and spun-sugar sticks. This was a beautifully warming dessert, tempered by the crisp sweetness of the sorbet. I, meanwhile, opted for a chocolate mousse, which was rich, sweet and creamy. The tea and coffee was of high quality as well.
Overall, we had been extremely impressed by an excellent meal, in a lovely, elegant but cosy room with a warm and welcoming ambience, and we felt entirely well-looked after. The Miller of Mansfield is most definitely somewhere I can happily recommend for a superb dinner. But be warned – once you have tasted the croquettes you may not ever want to eat anything else!
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic