In one of the prettiest parts of Hampshire, we meet the chef/owner of a pub that’s calling time on dull dining.

Upton is a small village full of thatched houses. Almost every ancient home has a head of hair that Boris Johnson would envy, albeit most are better groomed.

As Dave Watts, chef patron of The Crown, Upton, walks me from his restaurant to his charcuterie shed around the corner in the crisp February sunshine, you can’t help but envy him living and working in such a gorgeous part of the country. He agrees that he’s very lucky, ‘the rolling hills, the views…’ he smiles

The charcuterie sheds used to belong to a local farming couple, who recently decided to retire and close the business down but, as luck would also have it, Dave was offered the chance to take it over and he jumped at the opportunity. Here he now creates a selection of charcuteries from scratch, each cured in the sweet fresh air of Hampshire before being served to happy guests.

He’s been lucky quite a bit. He tells me that he bought The Crown after his mother just happened to spot it for sale and told him about it, otherwise he’d never have known. ‘I wasn’t really looking for anything, but here it is.’

He was lucky as well that, post catering college, he was taken on as a trainee chef at 21 at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, after boldly writing in to ask for a job. He was accepted only after he proved his mettle to Raymond Blanc under pressure though.

‘I then spent eight great years working from the bottom to the top at Le Manoir,’ he says, opening up the shed door, ‘Raymond is so good at empowering people through sharing the knowledge he’s acquired, as well as with his passion for excellence.’

After admiring Dave’s many charcuteries, including Watercress & Gin Salami, Lemon, Fennel Seed, & Black Pepper Coppa and  Lemon, Fennel Seed, & Black Peppercorn Lomo 

I find myself getting a bit hungry so we stroll back to The Crown for lunch. Dave is fully booked today, which is good news for him and his team as The Crown is a lot larger than it looks from the outside and post-Covid his business is keen to bounce back.

We take a shortcut through a fence, ‘my secret path’ laughs Dave, and head past the new outside wooden igloos designed for group eating ‘  Our H’igloos, Hampshire igloos!’, and we’re back inside.

Dave’s food is special for sure. His menu has the classic dishes you’d expect of a country pub, like a posh cheeseburger, ham and chips, and chunky sandwiches, ‘and of course there’s always a roast on Sunday,’ he points out, ‘you simply have to do a Sunday roast!’ but other dishes are more interesting.

‘My training is obviously classic French,’ he says as I sit down to eat,’ but I love light ingredients, shapes and natural textures, and doing as little as possible to enhance the ingredients. I guess my style might be ‘Rustic Neat’; warm and welcoming, but with attention to detail and style.’

Low beams, open fires, and rooms that seem to randomly branch off, give a cosy feel. ‘I like to feel that The Crown ‘hugs’ you when you come inside,’ Dave suggests looking around happily, and it certainly does. This is a pub where you want to spend serious time.

‘We didn’t need to do much when we took over, just a bit of decorating’, he adds, leading me into his kitchen, the literal centre of the largely 1880s building.

It’s a decent size space and immaculately clean and tidy, which is not always the case with kitchens that I visit, and a messy kitchen invariably means sub par food.

My partner and I share a plate of that charcuterie, which is superb and all the better for having fast-pickled onion slices and shards of pineapple accompanying it, as well as fine home-baked sourdough. I would never have thought of putting pineapple with charcuterie, but now I think I always will.

And of course so close to the River Test there has to be local trout, here cured and served with a perfectly made celeriac remoulade, sliced celeriac and slivers of truffle. This kind of deceptively simple dish relies on first class ingredients and a fine touch, both of which Dave has. 

‘We also do a plat de jour meal,’ Dave points out, ‘for people who want something a bit faster and a bit lighter. £18 which I think is good value. No choices, it’s what you get on the day. I’ve always liked that kind of eating. Super value for money!’’

‘Everything we do is cooked to order,’ he adds,’I’m no fan of things like sous vide although it has its uses. For me it’s all about traditional skills, which I think we are in slight danger of losing. You can’t jump to the creative side, you have to learn the basics first.’

We’re onto mains, I’m trying the vegetarian option because it’s so important these days that a good restaurant offers something special for veggies. Today Dave has created a dish of gnocchi made with local cheese Old Winchester, with mascarpone, and set them amongst cauliflower done three ways plus a salsa verde.

It’s a light dish, the gnocchi not at all gluey but almost ethereal, and the cauliflower shows off how he takes a simple ingredient and elevates it. It comes as a creamy puree, a ‘rice’ of raw florets chopped fine, and slivers of cauliflower briefly kissed by a hot pan. A melange of textures and flavours, and that salsa verde brings it all together. ‘

My partner raves over her pan-fried turbot, a decent hunk of fish expertly cooked and with a spinach and watercress puree, herbed freekeh and a red wine jus. You don’t get enough jus with food these days, it’s another classic skill in decline. 

She particularly liked getting her freekeh on, this often overlooked grain is made from durum wheat before it fully ripens, and is an excellent alternative to the more familiar bulgur wheat being slightly smoky and nutty.

I finished with a rum baba. I had spotted that on the menu before even choosing my starter. I know Rum Babas will never be the ones I loved as a kid; all syrup, fake rum and a glace cherry, but I still get excited.

This one of course was properly made, fluffy and buttery, but not enough rum – there’s never enough rum – but I liked the cherries spiked with gin and the novel addition of a cherry sorbet.

P had a very cheffy dessert of Chocolate cremeux, orange and almond cake, candied orange and orange pure and a chocolate tuile standing up like a ship’s sail. Not quite what you expect in a pub, but very welcome.

I can see why locals, and people further afield, are making the journey to The Crown.  its blend of original, well sourced ingredients mixed with high class cooking and down to earth hospitality and warm welcome is a certain winner.

The Crown Inn, Upton, Andover,

Hampshire, SP11 0JS