Restaurant Review: The Millbrook Inn, South Pool in Devon
Nick Gibbens reviews The Millbrook Inn, an award-winning gastro pub located in the picturesque village of South Pool, near Kingsbridge, in Devon.
I visited The Millbrook with my partner one wet and very cold evening in November (2015). It’s certainly what I would describe as a “destination pub” – meaning it’s not particularly easy to get to but the food on offer is so good (normally) that you’re happy to make the special visit.
The Millbrook has successfully established itself as one of the leading culinary delights of the South Hams, with its take on English pub food but with a slight French twist. So it was fair to say I was very excited about my visit.
After finally finding a spot to park my car (there is no pub car park) I made the short walk to the establishment. The pub, which was named by The Times newspaper as one of the top 50 places to eat by the sea in 2010, is located in the heart of this picture-postcard village.
The first thing I notice when I step inside the front door is the number of locals at the bar, which is always a good sign. I love village pubs that not only offer outstanding food, but ones that also look after their regulars. This can be a difficult balancing act but does ensure a pub has a heart and soul, and ultimately an identity. So many gastro pubs fail to achieve this rather tricky balance and many suffer badly as a result.
This 16th century pub is everything a humble village pub should be – rustic, small, intimate and cosy. The clever use of low lighting ensures the experience is welcoming. Stone walls and flooring, sanded down table tops and beautiful wooden beams are certainly in keeping with the pubs’ history and character. The pub clearly has a close connection with hunting as there are numerous paintings and pictures of hunting dogs.
The menu can be best described as adventurous and inventive. It’s very different to anything you would normally expect from a rustic village pub. This, of course, adds an element of risk but if done correctly can elevate a humble pub into a gastronomic delight. The style of cooking is English pub but with a serious French influence, which is not that surprising when the brains behind the menu is from France. Head chef Jean-Philippe’s menus owe their origin to the local landscape and with each mouthful, visitors to the Millbrook are helping to support a whole community. Championing Devon farming and fishing industries are at the very core of this charming village pub. It’s true seasonal field to plate eating, with every ingredient meticulously sourced.
I was feeling rather brave so for starters I opted for the warm salad of escargots, smoked streaky bacon with garlic and French dressing. Snails are certainly an acquired taste and the very thought puts a lot of people off. This is such a shame as they can be divine when cooked with care and attention. Fortunately the chef was on top form and these snails were soft, tender and beautifully cooked. They packed a real punch and the flavour was exquisite. The dish was beautifully balanced, with the crispy bacon adding an element of saltiness, the croutons adding a fantastic crunch and the salad providing softness. The taste of garlic was evident but it did not overpower the dish. The presentation was simply but overall my starter was a feast of flavours and textures.
My partner, Natasha, went for the venison, guinea fowl and wild mushroom terrine with balsamic reduction, apple chutney and rustic bread. She described the texture of the terrine as dense but the meat was tender and light and demonstrated a great level of skill. She was impressed with the mix of flavours on show and said the apple chutney really helped to lift the meat. The chutney was sweet and Natasha added that she thought the salad and the bread complemented the dish well. The presentation was pretty, helped by an array of different colours. Both starters were expertly portioned so we looked forward to our mains.
For the main event I opted for the assiette of village farm mutton, which comprised of a noisette, croquette, faggot and shredded shoulder. This was served with flageolet beans and a red wine jus. The dish not only looked fantastic but was very fitting for a cold November evening. The noisette was perfectly cooked (medium rare) and had an excellent meat to fat ratio. It was juicy and melted in the mouth. The shredded shoulder was soft and tender, but rich and earthy in flavour. The faggot, meanwhile, was dense and offered the taste buds a real Saturday night treat. The croquette had a beautiful breadcrumb outer and the mutton underneath was sublime and for me was the highlight of the dish. The accompanying vegetables (broccoli, carrots, mange tout, green beans and cabbage) added the much needed crunch to the dish and helped to balance it out quite nicely. Overall I would say this was a very accomplished plate of food.
Natasha went for the seared turbot fillet with mussels, which was served with pearl barley, chilli, spring onions, tomato and saffron sauce. In my opinion, turbot is fish royalty. Its firm, succulent, almost steak-like flesh is such that it will stand up to most cooking techniques – frying, grilling, baking or steaming, making it a fantastic ingredient to cook with at home. And on this occasion it did not disappoint. The turbot was thinly cut and was perfectly cooked. It was deliciously crispy and offered a stunning flavour, on a par with the Dover sole Natasha had enjoyed the weekend before in Cornwall. With the addition of chilli, spring onions and saffron, the dish certainly brought an element of Thai to the table. The pearl barley soaked up the flavoursome juices well. The mussels, however, were hugely disappointing and nearly ruined the whole dish. The other negative aspect of the dish was the fact it was served in a narrow bowl, thus making it slightly awkward to cut the fish with a knife and fork. This, of course, is a personal preference but my partner felt it would have been better presented on a plate or at least a wider bowl. But the star of the show, the Turbot, shone through, so with a few minor changes, this dish could be elevated to an excellent standard.
On to the desserts. I was feeling rather savoury so opted for the cheeseboard. This comprised of a selection of quality French and English cheeses (served on a slate), including Sharpham brie, Wookey Hole cave aged cheddar, Dorset Blue Vinny and Ragstone, a soft to firm goats’ milk cheese made by Charlie Westhead at Neals Yard Creamery, Dorstone in Herefordshire. I thought this was an excellent selection of cheeses which showcased a wide range of different textures and flavours. The figs were soaked in port, which gave the dish its sweet chutney element. To me they were definitely the star of the show. I also liked the addition of the crumbly oatcakes, celery and walnuts. Overall this was a really enjoyable way to end a superb meal.
Natasha has a very sweet tooth, so she chose the chocolate pot, chocolate ice cream, almond biscotti and raspberry coulis (presented on a slate). The chocolate pot was smooth, creamy and delicious whilst the biscotti and caramel swirl were crunchy, adding a great layer of texture. Natasha was a big fan of the raspberry coulis, describing it as “beautifully sweet”. The ice cream was served in a wafer cup and this ensured a delicate crisp to a truly fantastic celebration of chocolate.
The food on the night was beautifully cooked but I was disappointed that we did not have the opportunity to sample a selection of breads before our starters. When you’re going down the fine dining route I would also expect to see the addition of an appetiser – especially when you consider the French influence on the menu. The service on the night was relaxed and not fussy (my pet hate) but I was surprised that we were never asked if we wanted water or not. However, this is of course nip-picking, and it did not spoil a lovely evening.
A statement on their website reads: “We’re nothing fancy and reassuringly pubby, but without a doubt our English pub food collides with French auberge cuisine in spectacular fashion creating food which is quite literally stunning.” I think I would have to agree with this.
In a nutshell
With its rustic charm – all nooks and beams inside and a small, benched suntrap dropping down to a stream outside – this 16th century village pub would make a lasting impression, whatever the food was like. Luckily it was delicious and we both enjoyed an outstanding three-course meal each.
Address: South Pool, Kingsbridge, Devon TQ7 2RW