The Old Butchers
Park Street, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucester
Staff required,’ says the blackboard outside The Old Butchers in Stow-on-the-Wold. ‘Experience not required. Personality essential.’ Hallelujah to that. And while the streets outside may be treacherous with yellow-tinged ice, the atmosphere within is warmer than a fat man’s embrace. The room is small, comfortable and unpretentious, the whole place infused with a mildly chaotic, genially higgledy-piggledy charm.
At its heart is a bar overflowing with a generous glut of booze, the tables crowded all around. Yet despite the hugger-mugger feel (and there’s barely a surface that isn’t covered with vases of flowers, or jeroboams of champagne, or glass jars stuffed full with corks), it never feels crammed or uncomfortable. Because this is a restaurant where pleasure comes before prissy interior design, and the only commerce that really seems to matter is the serious business of eating.
The room is small, comfortable and unpretentious, the whole place infused with a mildly chaotic, genially higgledy-piggledy charm
Laid-back it might be, but the cooking is anything but casual. With a broadly European menu, lusty with seafood and steak, there is just the occasional jaunt across to Japan (tempura oysters) or the USA (crab roll). Fritto misto sees a thin, crisp, grease-free and burnished batter draped over whitebait, soft-shell crab and prawn. So often an excuse to cover up (and mark up) second-rate seafood, here each mouthful sings of crashing waves and iodine-soaked spray.
My son attacks a dozen Porthilly rocks, big buggers but bracingly saline rather than brutish. His capacity for bivalves exceeds even mine and buys a blissful ten minutes of peace. Even my daughter – whose idea of pure culinary nirvana is a hot dog, preferably Herta, naked and unadorned – is impressed by her smoked haddock and Parmesan omelette. ‘It’s an omelette Arnold Bennett,’ I tell her grandly. ‘Named after the journalist and writer who has now, perhaps unfairly, faded into learned obscurity and…’ I look up to see my daughter yawning theatrically, before turning entirely serious and looking me straight in the eye. ‘Don’t be a bore, Daddy.’ My pretension duly piqued, I hijack a gobful. And it’s as serious, rich and smoky as an Edwardian gent, lavished with great chunks of fish, and a centre that oozes with unapologetic delight.
FROM THE MENU
Porthilly rock oyster £3.25
Fritto misto £12.95
Haddock omelette £10.50
Loin of rabbit £21.50
More comfort, from a cast-iron pan filled with raclette. Damn, I love raclette, so steadfast and straightforward, so filled with lactic Alpine allure. The puddle of slightly browned, melted cheese is attended by tiny potatoes, pert cornichons and slivers of air-dried ham. Just as it should be. I vainly attempt to fight off a flurry of marauding forks. Freddy has now moved on to mussels, fat and Cornish and creamy, the sweet garlicky sauce mopped up with fistfuls of good chips. Ben’s crab roll, filled with a generous whack of freshly picked crab, both bosky-brown and clean, virginal goody-two-shoes white, sits in a toasted, buttery brioche bun. Which is then finished with a hearty splodge of spicy cocktail sauce. It disappears in two mouthfuls, followed by a satisfied grunt.
I eat an ox cheek bourguignon of pure bovine brilliance, the meat cooked so it falls apart with luscious ease yet still holds its shape. The sauce is deep and dark and glossy, furiously reduced and gloriously sticky. Alongside the usual pearl onions, mushrooms and charred carrots are a half-dozen or so snails, adding bouncy contrast to the soft flesh. Sitting at its side, a Jagger-esque length of tender tongue, wearing the char of the grill and the faintest whiff of the farmyard floor. Oh, and a great buttery pile of silken mashed potato. Like Gérard Depardieu, it’s a dish that combines heft and depth with a surprising lightness of touch. That, and plenty of booze.
Raclette £8.95. The puddle of slightly browned, melted cheese is attended by tiny potatoes, pert cornichons and slivers of air-dried ham. Just as it should be
Mussels, fat and Cornish and creamy, the sweet garlicky sauce mopped up with fistfuls of good chips (left); It’s testament to a kitchen that it can produce the most diaphanous of fritto mistos
It’s also testament to a kitchen that is capable of producing the most diaphanous of fritto mistos, alongside one of the best versions of beef bourguignon I’ve ever eaten. The service, as you’d expect, is lovely. That blackboard outside meant what it said. So as you’ve probably gathered, I love this place. ‘Don’t for Christ’s sake write about it,’ begs Ben as we leave. ‘It’s impossible enough to get in as it is.’
Sorry mate, but The Old Butchers is too good to keep to myself. It’s one of those rare local restaurants that combines charm, comfort, value and damned good cooking too. Plus, the bill arrives with a handful of pink foam prawns. All this and sweetshop crustaceans too. Truly, my cup runneth over.
About £30 a head
What Tom ate this week
Right. Quite enough of this Christmas excess. Although with only a few days to go until New Year, no point relaxing now. So dinner of XO fried rice, Sichuan prawns and, for the sake of my digestion, steamed gai lan with oyster sauce at Shikumen.
Down to my sister’s for my twin nephews’ birthday. Graze various sandwiches and crisps, then chicken jalfrezi, tarka dahl, poppadoms, chana masala and naan at The Palm.
Thai beef salad and noodles for lunch, then off to The Pheasant for seared scallops, plus chateaubriand and chips.
Urgh. Feeling a touch tender. Still, nothing a stiff Bloody Mary can’t fix. Spaghetti Bolognese for lunch and lashings of wine. The last gasp. Sober, sensible and pious life starts tomorrow once more. I hope.