Wooden beams, ancient fireplace and modern cooking. Nick finds just the pub he’s been looking for

Summer’s imminent arrival, honest guv it’s really coming, has me thinking of getting out of town and finding the perfect pub for lunch.

Born in the fringes of South London, where it segues into Surrey, Kent and Hampshire, I grew up with parents that loved to roll the Cortina Mk III out into the countryside where, truth to tell, good food was almost non-existent, but the beer gardens were always glorious adventures for a small child armed with a bag of Cheese ‘n’ Onion crisps

Today, living further in town but still a South Londoner, I don’t get out as much as I should, so hearing of a new pub destination a few miles on from where I had to go for a meeting anyway, I dusted off the car and hit the A3.

It’s a simple, straightforward drive down in good weather, so an hour or so later we are in the village of Witley parking up at The Star, which looks the part perfectly with nice old houses around it.

Inside the 17th C  building was tastefully spruced up in 2022 by Brucan Pubs, who run a few classy inns in the area, with no trace now of what sounds to have been all  the signs of a pub on its last legs.

All reminders of pool rooms, fruit machines and sticky carpets have gone, instead ancient oak beams have been exposed, along with the brickwork, and 70s partitions removed to let the space breathe again. The change has clearly worked well as the car park is full of smart cars driven by customers who can afford a decent lunch or two.

We linger in the bar area, the cosy wood burner is dark now as it’s Spring, and drink some cocktails from a decent list that includes a good few non-alcoholic ones, as every pub should offer these days.

Then it’s into the restaurant proper, which has lots more of those lovely beams, as well an ancient inglenook fireplace big enough to roast a peasant (sic)  in. Light creeps in through old windows and is reflected off tables of polished wood sporting real napkins.

We nibble deep-fried pickles with a blue cheese dip. Excellent fresh batter,  although I would have liked a bit more vinegar in the encased gherkin for contrast. From Chef Jamie – The Berkley, The Connaught, The Savoy, The Ivy and Soho’s Groucho Club – comes a menu that covers country pub bases and then adds a fair bit of flair. I have Hampshire asparagus topped with Hollandaise sauce and a soft egg. Excellent asparagus and the Hollandaise has the vinegar twang missing from the pickles.

It does need bread to mop up with, but P has got some supplied with her roast crab, so I steal some of that. The crab, baked in its shell, has curry overtones which works well without stealing from the crab’s fresh flavours so she happily scrapes the shell.

Cottage pie, often a pub favourite because it can be made in advance and then only needs reheating, here seems to be freshly made and has piped potato rosettes which makes it look a lot posher.

It is in fact a lot posher anyway as it’s made with rich venison. This almost zero fat meat makes for a pie that isn’t oily. The purple sprouting broccoli, surely now the last of the season, is a bit too al dente on the stems but the heads are fine. It’s not easy to get the balance right as I know from experience.

My choice is North Sea cod, cockles, roast fennel, sea vegetables, salsa verde. It’s a bit of a brave choice, as you can’t always trust pubs located miles inland to have fresh fish every day, but this is very good with well cooked cod, it’s firm but not overdone, and the salsa, cockles and samphire all help out, with the latter adding a fresh sea-salty crunch.

I’m not so keen on the fennel, I like the flavour but it’s a bit tough at the root end. The buttered greens are vibrant and iron-y, the Jersey Royals are baked, I think, for extra flavour but they’re slightly underdone. I prefer them served sliced lengthways too, so they don’t roll around like pebbles on the plate. These are small criticisms though

A coconut and lemon panna cotta and shortbread was, I was advised, vegan so it would not be the usual texture –  gelatine is of course derived from animals. And yes, it was not wobbly as is standard, but I still liked it. The sweet coconut and astringent lemon were well balanced and who doesn’t like shortbread? Although this was presumably made without butter.

The White chocolate cheesecake with poached rhubarb, probably the last of the season, was perfect. 

Good country pubs are relatively thin on the ground, as indeed are pubs in general these days. When a big effort is made to turn one around, and done so well, it deserves the support of locals and Londoners within range. As the sun comes out for summer, hop in the car and follow the Star.