Review: The Willow and Brook, Apethorpe
This picturesque former pub has gone full gastro and is bursting with warmth and soul. We settled in for the evening to taste test the new winter menu.
Way up in the north of the county in what is undoubtedly one of the prettiest and most desirable parts of Northants, The Willow and Brook is at the gorgeous heart of the limestone village of Apethorpe, a few miles from Peterborough, but very much deep in the countryside. The pub itself is part of the Apethorpe Palace estate, a former digs of James I. Other well known ex-pats include Rowan Atkinson, so expect to be wowed by the gorgeous property everywhere as you drive through.
It’s an icy cold winter’s evening on the day of my visit and fairy lights adorn the mullioned bay windows, whilst animated diners chat and laugh inside, like a scene from a Dickens novel. The welcome here is warm and friendly with an upmarket, family vibe. It’s aways nice to be complimented on a new hat too (All Saints Black Friday sale), so that definitely set the tone.
It’s not overly fancy at the Willow and Brook, but it’s been fully zhuzhed up since its former life as The King’s Head and feels fresh, chic and cosy. Suzanne (Front of House) and Jim Millar (Head Chef) took over the running of the show here in early 2020, so it’s been a funny old time for them but, having moved here with their children and injected their own creative flair, it already feels like they’re part of this historic building and the village community.
SCOFF & QUAFF
The food here is very well executed, restaurant quality cuisine thanks to Head Chef Jim’s creative menus. To be fair it’s on a much higher level than gastropub, they don’t really want to be seen as a pub so much as a country restaurant and they’ve nestled into that niche pretty seamlessly. The wine list is extensive and includes a good selections of English wines (Ashling Park, Sharpham, Henners) as well as a Romanian Pinot Grigio among the Aussies, French, Italian and Chileans, so it’s been very well considered. You can also expect your pre-dinner Cosmo to include locally produced Warner’s gin and Espresso Martini with Jelley’s Vodka – they love to keep it local.
Suzanne brought us some deliciously soft homemade bread with herby butter to keep us going until our starters arrived but we didn’t have to wait long. I started off with the Home Cured Beetroot and Vodka Salmon with Chive Blinis and Avocado Ice-Cream. Yes, that’s Avocado Ice-Cream and yes it was unbelievably good. So much so I’m going to try to recreate it at home, though I might struggle to replicate this beautiful concoction. Everything was just perfectly delicate but there was enough on the plate to really be able to tuck in. Mr Muddy went for the slightly more warming Sweet Potato and Butternut Soup with Chilli Oil and Herb Focaccia, perfect for a chilly evening.
Head Chef Jim recommended the Sea Bass, which I often find is an OK sort of dish, so I wasn’t expecting to be wowed but this Pan Seared Sea Bass, Seafood Bisque, Herb Dumpling, Sweet Chilli Chutney and Samphire was really something special and the perfect dish if you want something warming but delicate and stodge free. The generous fillet of bass was cooked to perfection, whilst the bisque offered up jewels of juicy prawns, fat mussels and scallops. The Date chose a Pumpkin, Red Onion, Roasted Pepper and Goats Cheese Tart with Basil and Sesame Seed Vegetables and compliments abounded for the pastry and the fresh flavours.
I’m not much of a pudding girl and I’ll usually opt for the cheese board rather than something sweet but the desserts on the menu here were calling my name loud and clear. I couldn’t resist the Dark Chocolate, Peach Bavarois, Meringue and Warm Chocolate Sauce, the kind where you pour the sauce over and the chocolate bomb goes all melty? Mmm, absolute heaven for me and not too sickly sweet. The Plus One went for Mulled Wine Soufflé and Christmas Pudding Ice-Cream, which I had to try for research purposes and I think it’s fair to say I would go back to Willow and Brook (easily a 2 hour round trip from Muddy Towers) just to eat this.
You can grab an English brekkie or pancakes for a weekend breakfast here too, plus Jim is happy to accommodate all sorts of special dietary needs (one of their boys is Coeliac so they totally get it) and they even have a dedicated and actually quite decent vegan menu and a children’s menu and activities to keep the kids occupied.
OUT AND ABOUT
It’s simply lovely here and there are loads of public footpaths for a pre-dinner walk to work up an appetite. Apethorpe Palace, which is an English Heritage property, is frustratingly closed at the time of writing, but check on its opening status if you’re heading up there. Nearby Kirby Hall, a ruined Tudor manor, is a few miles away and you’re not far from Fotheringhay Castle and the beautiful market town of Oundle too, which is great for independent shops and boutiques.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: A lovely date night destination if you want something just that bit more special food wise, but with a relaxed vibe, it’s also great for lunch or dinner with friends and family groups. The in-laws would be impressed and it would be hard not to find something for picky eaters or those on special diets. There’s also a lovely courtyard that the building wraps around, so it makes for a gorgeous sheltered spot for outside dining on warmer days, I’m planning summer’s evening spritzers already.
Not for: Definitely not a bog-standard boozer or raucous night out kind of place, the focus here is on the amazing food and warm atmosphere.
The damage: Starters are all around the £10 mark, mains from £18-£25 and desserts £9 each. House wine is £17 a bottle and cocktails are from £8.50.
The Willow and Brook, Kings Cliffe Road, Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, PE8 5DG. Tel: 01780 470509, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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