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Restaurant review: The Punchbowl Inn, near Ockley

PUBLISHED: 10:20 31 January 2018 | UPDATED: 10:31 31 January 2018

Tony Tobin turning The Punchbowl Inn into a kitchen theatre

Tony Tobin turning The Punchbowl Inn into a kitchen theatre

Archant

Having made his name as one of Surrey’s first celebrity chefs on Ready Steady Cook, things have been tougher for Tony Tobin recently with his long-standing Reigate restaurant closing in 2017. Matthew Williams joins him at The Punchbowl Inn, near Ockley, for a country pub night with a difference

Surrey’s top end restaurant scene is perhaps in the strongest position it has ever been but there’s a nagging doubt that many independent eateries with ambitions are facing a losing battle against the high street chain gang.

While Michelin stars are flooding in and luxury destinations are on the increase, some of our county’s much-loved stalwarts have disappeared when the costs associated with their corner of the market have proven too heavy a burden to bear.

The Poacher’s Pocket, in Haslemere; Two to Four, in Dorking; The Dining Room, in Hersham; and, most recently, The Dining Room, in Reigate are among those to close, taking generations of memories with them.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as La Barbe in Reigate; Carlo’s Trattoria on Newlands Corner; Kinghams in Shere; and Toby Cottage in Ripley (this isn’t an exhaustive list, so I apologise already if I’ve missed you!) continue to fly the flag for independent restaurants with heritage.

The Vineking and Maxwell Mackenzie, meanwhile, launched a month-long, pop-up in the empty The Dining Room in Reigate and a new restaurant is set to be born in the place of Two to Four in 2018 with new owners. There’s hope then.

The change in the market has also seen pubs upping their food and drink game, as well as collaborative efforts creating a whole new travelling foodie world of supper clubs and pop-up restaurants.

By way of an introduction, I’ve got a little carried away but I think it shines a light on the situation I find myself in this restaurant review…

Inside The Punchbowl InnInside The Punchbowl Inn

Changing times

A former star of Ready Steady Cook, Tony Tobin has recently been forced to change direction, having closed The Dining Room in August after 25 years of proudly watching over Reigate High Street.

It was a shock to many, yet people just weren’t heading through the door as often anymore – with the many chain alternatives in town blamed.

To cut a long story short, Tony took some time off to gather his thoughts. He caught up with some of his fellow Ready Steady Cook chefs, including James Martin, Ainsley Harriott and Brian Turner, and appeared on Saturday Morning with James Martin on ITV with his actor/singer mate Shane Richie.

Back in the kitchen, however, he has found a new project with local independent pub group, Time Well Spent.

The group operates seven traditional pubs and they’re always cosy country buildings, often harking back to the nostalgic way people remember British pubs.

There’s little glitz and glamour or country chic but there is usually a warm fire, well-kept pint or glass of wine, wooden beams, chocolate box-pretty exteriors and decent food. They’re places that remind you of a less complicated era for the pub game.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Tony and Time Well Spent collided. They’re not hugely interested in following trends, but they both retain a passion for good old-fashioned hospitality.

The Ready Steady Cook chefs recently enjoyed a catch upThe Ready Steady Cook chefs recently enjoyed a catch up

Hitting the road

They’ve been creative with their series of gourmet nights through December and January too, taking an old The Dining Room staple of gourmet evenings and seamlessly merging them into country pub life.

Intrigued, we find ourselves at The Punchbowl Inn near Ockley.

The evening, part of a gourmet tour around the group’s pubs, starts upstairs with a portable Saturday Kitchen-like set up. Here, Tony talks through the dishes while teasing the historic building’s alarm system with a live cookery demonstration.

Throughout, he regales the audience with tales of his past under the tutelage of Nico Ladenis (the same chef who so inspired Steve Drake) and holiday meal horror stories. It’s fun, tongue-in-cheek, very middle England and informative.

We then all head downstairs for a glass of prosecco and the night’s menu, which has been overseen by Tony but prepared by the pub’s head chef Gregor.

First up is a smoked haddock scotch egg with tomato and piquillo pepper fondue. It’s a winter warmer with a nod to Spain and a soft, gooey yolk. The moreish five-spice maple duck breast is plated with a sweet potato and confit croquette, fresh beans and shallots with orange jus. Simple ideas, nicely executed and perfectly unfussy for the occasion. To finish, the baked chocolate mousse tart with chocolate sauce and orange sorbet is the star of the show – rich, intense and delicious.

The menu is perfectly pitched for a pub dining crowd looking for a tasty evening out with friends, which is nothing to be sniffed at and exactly what they’ve aimed for, I’m sure. Considering the price for the evening (with a wine flight) comes in at £45, it’s hard to find fault. I’m sure these events, more of which are planned for the coming months, will be a popular draw. Either way, they offer positive signs for what lies ahead.

I’ve been to a few Time Well Spent venues over the years and it’s easy to appreciate what they have set out to offer, so it’s intriguing to see what they might be capable of with a sprinkle of refreshed Tony Tobin magic in the background.

Need to know:

The Punchbowl Inn

Okewood Hill, near Ockley RH5 5PU

Tel: 01306 627249

Web: timewellspent.co.uk - keep an eye out for new Gourmet Tour dates to be announced soon.

What we ate: The Gourmet Tour menu, £45 with wine flight

Beginning: Smoked haddock scotch egg paired with Cullinan View Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape 2016

Middle: Five spice maple duck breast paired with Errazuiz, 1870 Mapuche Block, Cabernet Sauvignon, Aconcagua Valley

End: Baked chocolate mousse tart paired with Brown Brothers Late Harvest Orange Muscat & Flora, Victoria

The Surrey sister pubs:

The Sportsman, Mogador

The Well House Inn, Mugswell

The Royal Oak, Brockham

The Red Lion, Betchworth

The Royal Oak, Holmbury St Mary

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