aAccording to my mother, my ancestors ran the Pentonbridge Inn, near the Scottish border. We’re talking at least a century ago, because this historic coaching inn is pretty old, which means everyone knows if my great and great grandmother who pulled pints here was long gone, including my mother, who kept it all. Keys to family folklore. How I wish I had written copious notes on these things years ago, when instead I would have wandered about that posh London, eating mackerel in seawater cream at Claridge’s or some other really important thing.
Meanwhile, around 2017, in the area historically known as ‘debatable ground’ between the Solway Firth, Dumfries and Galloway, the Pentonbridge Inn began an extensive and expensive renovation. It’s transformed from a crumbling castle largely overlooked against the elements into a beautiful, bold, pale building where Chef Chris Archer’s five- or eight-course tasting menus are served. For someone like me who knows the area, the project is interesting. It takes a pig’s head design to sell egg yolk ravioli with truffle purée noise in a place where the road network is patchy at best and the last train stopped in 1969. Also, staff retention from September to May can be a big problem, because up here, those are Withnail and I are the months when daylight is scarce and frost falls chiefly on either side.
Despite this, or perhaps in defiance of it, the Pentonbridge Inn is thriving. In fact, they make it look so easy, you might be left thinking: “Hospitality crisis? What hospitality crisis?” It’s sleek and modern, with interiors close to Scandi. Don’t go waiting for chintz or tartan or Old Cumberland. The team is mainly local, with restaurant manager Ross Bell leading warm, attentive service without any airiness or grace. These are the kind of employees that need to be retained at all costs.
At Saturday dinner they serve eight courses, using mostly local ingredients, including fruit, vegetables and herbs from the adjacent walled garden at Netherby Hall. Archer worked at Midsummer House in Cambridge and The Cottage in the Wood near Keswick, which is evident in his culinary prowess, but it seems to me that it was at the Pentonbridge Inn that he found his true stride. This is a list of extraordinary confidence: sometimes playful, sometimes very serious, and always executed with precision. An opening course of ‘cheddar, onion, beer’ is a rich and fragrant soup with a plate of cheesy, light yellow ‘custard creams’. It pairs seamlessly with warm fresh bread and juicy corned beef preserved in a thick, white layer of beef drippings. Pointing isn’t something you see often on lists, not least because modern audiences find the word offputting, which is probably why it isn’t on the list.
Any informal meaning, however, is crushed by the next plate of chalky, finely poached trout. Arranged in cylindrical bases around elegant curls of pickled garden carrots, blobs drizzled with rich curry sauce and a puddle of orange essence; Every bit of hazelnut spread around the plate feels as if it was intentionally screwed into place by the wordless chefs in the open kitchen.
The next two dishes are plated with similar pain: a piece of perfectly fried North Sea cod with fatty, unpeeled langoustines rolled over the top, poached celery, one perfect rectangle of puffed potato and sweet apple cider sauce. This is the kind of food that makes me dizzy with questions: Who exactly is this guy? Why don’t more people glorify his genius? Where are the Pentonbridge Inn’s Michelin stars (at least two worth)? How many times do they puff up the potatoes to get 30 identical rectangles, before dusting them with moss-tinted dust and arranging them on cod without the dust contaminating the sauce or the langoustines?
Particularly recently it has been wrong to unabashedly glorify expensive pony food, but cooking at this level is something Britain should be proud of. Not only here in Cumbria, but also across the UK, the kings and queens of hospitality strive daily to honor and apply great original products like conceptual art while somehow keeping the lights on and the hot water running. The Pentonbridge Inn does all of these things and more, while serving local deer with haggis and sweet and sour quince.
Next, three desserts, each more beautiful than the last. First, a pre-frothy dessert of sour cream whipped on Guinness and a lush blackcurrant coulis, then poached pineapple with fresh gingerbread and caramel parfait, and finally, my favourite, four warm, chunky, gooey minis. Guidance. Of all the waistline-flattering French pastries, cannelles are the least rated. yes Lemon Bichon and the Paris Brest It will always fascinate me, but the cannilla, in all its lingering goodness, lively, custard-based, and crunchy-topped, dominates my heart. No restaurant really needs to make fresh cannells as four small servings without mentioning it on the menu, but this one does promise and exceeds. If this is the new age of the Pentonbridge Inn, it is safe for another century.
pentonbridge inn, Paignton, Carlisle, Cumbria, 01228 586636. Open Lunch Fri-Sat, noon – 1.30pm (last orders), Dinner Wed-Sat, 6-8.30pm (last orders). Set menus only, five-course lunch £75, eight-course dinner, plus drinks and service.