IT is in the top ten of our 100 Best Restaurants in the North, but it’s certainly not resting on its considerable laurels.
Steven Smith is a busy, busy man. Driven is too strong a word because he radiates such joy at so many of his dreams coming true all at once.
On August 29 he celebrates a decade at The Freemasons at Wiswell with four luxury bedrooms recently attached to the multi-award-winning gastropub plus a state of the art kitchen as the hub of a new dining experience called ‘Mr Smith’s’… oh, and there’s baby Lavender just a couple of weeks old.
“Many folk believe it deserves a star as befits its third position in The Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs”
The chef patron is cooking breakfast for us in that gleaming new kitchen. He’s been up early after a night of new dad’s sleep deprivation.
Homemade strawberry and elderflower juice, crumpets and croissants, gorgeous homemade granola, seriously fine coffee, poached haddock. Perfect.
We don’t do fry-ups but like the refined look of the examples being wolfed by a couple across the huge oak table.
They’re up from the South, property-seeking, and only chanced upon The Freemasons via a random Google. They are well impressed with the Ribble Valley and their lodging – the area’s bijou best.
Steven tells them the bedrooms have only been open since July. They’re in ‘Mr Fox’ upstairs; we’re in (dog-friendly) ‘Partridge’ down below.
New-season grouse is on the tasting menu – it makes for a pleasing symmetry.
We’d last seen Steven less than twelve hours before as he ensured our pineapple cooked in Pedro Ximenez with caramel and dark chocolate sorbet passed muster. It did big time, to complete the memorable seven courses with snacks that constitute the £100 a head ‘Taste of Mr Smith’s’.
That day he’d come back from an engagement in Oxford, leaving the kitchen in the capable hands of head chef Stephen Moore. We said he was busy. What is obvious is the attention to detail and calm efficiency of the brigade, turning out dishes for the 70-cover Freemasons itself; everything from turbot fillet, courgette and basil, tempura courgette flower filled with crab, scallop and strawberry vierge to simple steak and chips.
Steven insists everything on the menu is democratically the finest they can achieve.
We see all this action at close quarters, occupying half of the four stools at The Kitchen Bench, one of two Mr Smith’s options – the other, The Kitchen Table, accommodating up to ten diners.
The whole effect is of a darkly welcoming boardroom (its sprung seats were the most comfortable I’ve ever breakfasted from).
A vast plasma telly at the far end is discreetly showing Liverpool vs Chelsea in the European Super Cup; it’s Steven’s intention to retain a pubby feel lest the tasting menu thing becomes over solemn.
My cheeky suggestion of a darts board is dismissed with a chuckle.
At the ‘Bench’ it is a sore temptation to swivel round to register any VAR decisions – or maybe even a goal, but the procession of dishes assembled in front of our eyes and the assiduous wine matching of sommelier Mario Martins is the only winner on the night.
The food? It has to live up to the phalanx of award plaques on the walls of what at first glimpse is just a smart country inn. These include Michelin ‘plates’ for various years; many folks believe it deserves a star as befits its third position in The Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs (four of the top six boast one).
“The king-sized bed was so extraordinarily comfortable, the lighting calibrated to perfection, the sound system top of the range and the bathroom itself a roomy delight”
The man himself, who earned his chef stripes at swanky Stanley House and Gilpin Lodge, told the Confidentials in a March interview “We’re trying to be the best pub in the world.” Big words, but it is the small details we notice across our dinner that convince us of a relaxed maturity now at play in the food (and I’ve been eating there since he opened in 2009).
The assertive Oriental spice riffs are still there, now in more balance, yet he doesn’t shirk big flavours either. Early on, a smoked beet, pickled walnut and Lancashire cheese tart is a palate arousing snack and his lamb fat and rosemary brioche with cultured butter doesn’t spare the collagen.
But then, in contrast, there’s a very contemporary culinary confidence to two heritage tomato dishes that sing of summer by keeping it simple. First an ultra-pure consommé, then the same Isle of Wight Tomatoes, dressed in his own beer vinegar and assembled with raspberries, mozzarella and a smidgeon of caviar.
The course called ‘homage’ reasserts fine dining – chicken, langoustines and girolles pay homage to a mentor, Steven Doherty, eighties head chef at Le Gavroche who later pioneered gastropubs in Cumbria, and triple Michelin-starred Nouvelle Cuisine legend Alain Chapel, who died young in 1990.
While explaining the lofty inspiration for that dish, Steven, only a yard away, is combining native lobster and roast peaches with a slightly overwhelming Singapore pepper sauce. Still, it is perfectly matched by a sweetly oaked Australian Chardonnay Mario has conjured up.
Grouse (a few days on from the Glorious Twelfth) is stripped back from previous treatments and is worth the journey alone; roast breast, fillet strip with charred sweetcorn and fresh cherries, a mead sauce meshing the exquisite deal.
It was served after an offaly daring surprise – a kebab of the heart and liver of the bird with a cube of foie gras cooked on a yakitori charcoal grill that’s an essential plaything in the new kitchen.
Steven tells me he’s thinking of introducing it on the main bar menu. Now that is confidence. Though it might well pair with a pint of Bowland Hen Harrier.
After all this we crash in the room named Partridge – so good to have just a few metres to waddle to bed.
The game-themed rooms (there’s also a Grouse and a Mr Hare) still have a pristine newness, yet have been a long time in the making.
Eight years ago they purchased the two cottages next door in its compact ginnel and five years of painstaking applications to gain planning permission in this upmarket commuter village (pronounced ‘wizzle’ by the way.)
Steven says: “In some ways the long delay, though frustrating, has been to our advantage. We have grown into the Freemasons, are now more prepared by experience as all the changes take us to another level. For a chef, it’s an amazing thing to be able to design your own space and there’s a lot more to come.”
Worth the wait? Assuredly.
In Partridge, graced with a stuffed example in bell jar, we couldn’t open the window with its sturdy blinds; water flow in the bathroom took its time, the hot and cold taps in the shower seemed to be reversed and while we had two vials each of shampoo and body lotion, there were none of conditioner or gel.
The tiniest of quibbles when the king-sized bed was so extraordinarily comfortable, the lighting calibrated to perfection, the sound system top of the range and the bathroom itself a roomy delight behind its two massive doors that wouldn’t have been out of place in some country house.
Mr Fox and Mr Hare are grander, airier with mezzanine roll-top baths and dressing room.
Just 50 minutes’ drive from Manchester, the whole package makes it an attractive base for exploring the Ribble Valley and its further foodie delights. Stock up your cellar at the Whalley Wine Shop, a couple of miles away, which has just been shortlisted for 2019 Decanter Awards Retailer of the Year.
As it happens, wine forms the Freemasons’ next big project, Steven tells us they are working on an upstairs sommelier station and wine tasting room.
A perfect place then to toast that decade of achievement and what’s still to come.
Freemasons at Wiswell, 8 Vicarage Fold, Wiswell, nr Clitheroe, BB7 9DF. 01254 822218.
This article was written by Neil Sowerby and originally published on Confidentials.com