Tony Rowen is delighted his former local is thriving and flourishing
LET me lay my cards on the table from the outset – The Royal Oak in Cogenhoe is a place I have known and frequented for more than 40 years. In fact, it was my local for about 30 years when I lived in the village, and it is a place I still visit on a regular basis to meet up with friends.
This doesn’t mean to say I see The Royal Oak through rose-tinted glasses. There have been the best of times, there have been the worst of times – currently it is enjoying a really purple patch under the stewardship of Kath Garner who took it over coming up for five years ago this May.
My first encounter with the pub was in 1975 when I moved into the village. It was run by John and Sheila as a traditional village pub with a public bar, complete with a bar billiards table and a darts board, and a lounge bar.
Then came Frank and Anna, who continued the traditional village pub style and made it a popular venue for the villagers. I can’t recall how long they were ‘mine hosts’ but after they left, The Royal Oak experienced a chequered existence with a variety of landlords, before its fortunes were resurrected by Kevin who took over in the early 2000s.
He introduced a food element and attracted villagers who hadn’t been there for years back into the fold. But when he left, a period of instability followed until Kath arrived in 2014. At that point, a total refurbishment was carried out and a kitchen was installed, where she and Colin King, her daughter’s partner, create a superb selection of food and generally made it fit for purpose for the 21st Century.
Today, The Royal Oak is branded as a village pub and kitchen. Gone are the separate public and lounge bars with the bar area just one room – complete with logs burning on an impressive feature fireplace providing a warm welcome to everyone in the winter months - and tables for casual dining while there is a separate restaurant area for more formal dining.
Since Kath’s arrival, I’ve eaten at The Royal Oak on a number of occasions and it was the venue for my ‘bubbles and buffet’ birthday bash for some 50 relatives and friends a couple of years ago, so I approached my visit for this dining review in good heart.
Receiving my customary warm welcome from Adrian, Kath’s other daughter’s partner, behind the bar, Anita and I were shown to our table in the restaurant where we supped a particularly fine Chardonnay while studying the menu.
Seven starter options vied for our vote with duck, pork, orange and cognac pate, toast and chutney; and stout-cured smoked salmon with dill, avocado and horseradish cream on ancient grain bread winning the day.
Make sure you have a good appetite when you visit The Royal Oak – both starters were generous portions. Anita described the pate the best she had ever tasted and raved about the accompanying bread, while my smoked salmon had a real fishy taste to it with the dill, avocado and horseradish cream really enhancing the dish. Again the bread it was served on was superb.
I knew as soon as I saw the mains menu, that it was a foregone conclusion what fish-loving Anita would choose as one of the specials on offer was a salmon traybake – salmon fillet, Sicilian red pesto, baby potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and chilli sauce.
This visit provided me with the opportunity to sample The Stuff In The Oven – tender pieces of beef slow cooked with onions, chilli, mushrooms, celery, red wine and garlic, topped with crispy potatoes and crusty bread for mopping up. This is a dish from Kath’s family and gets its name because whenever anyone asked what was for dinner they were met with the reply - ‘oh, stuff in the oven’.
Again, both mains were generous portions, with the salmon having plenty of taste and the ‘stuff’ having a real bite to it, courtesy of the chilli, and the beef literally melting in the mouth. The bread was an essential side dish to mop up the delicious gravy.
In the past, I’ve had fish and chips – absolutely delicious – and I’m told by friends that I must try the shortcrust steak and Royal Oak blue cheese pie – described on the website as ‘King of Pies – the best in Northampton, even if we say so ourselves’!
As you may suspect, we had to pass on the desserts – but scanning reviews on the website the choices are just as appetising as the starters and mains. Instead, we opted for coffees and went and sat on one of the comfy leather sofas in the bar and reflect on a very, very good meal.
It would be remiss not to mention our waiter, Charlie. He is one of a number of young people from the village who share the waiting duties. Smartly dressed, polite and courteous he provided a level of service beyond his years.
In what is a difficult industry, Kath and her team have rejuvenated The Royal Oak into a real asset for the village attracting not only villagers but others from further afield. It’s so heartening to see my local thriving and flourishing.