The pub in Clitheroe was recently crowned fifth in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs 2022 list, knuckling back from sixth place the year before. The pub has bagged a position in the top ten spots for several years.
When considering a dish for the menu, chef-owner Steven Smith considers three questions: would a customer want to eat it, does it fit with the venue, and can the kitchen staff deliver the dish?
He said: “While trying to be very progressive with what we do, we still try and make sure the customer is going to enjoy the food, so we're not just cooking for ourselves.
“Once upon a time, we would be putting all sorts of dishes on, thinking we were the best chefs in the world, and forgetting about the customer.
“But now we put our customer hat on and say, ‘would we be happy with this?’"
Seasonality is key
At the gastropub, seasonality is also key. It’s all about seeing what products are already out there, with rhubarb, blood oranges, beetroot and root vegetables being the best picks for this time of year.
On top of that, for Smith, it’s all about refining classic dishes. “As we've matured, the menu has matured,” said Smith, having owned Freemasons since 2009. “The menu now is an evolution of what we’ve done in the past”.
He takes the tasting menu’s main of Lancashire aged beef as an example: the roast fillet and sticky cheek is paired with mushroom ketchup, triple cooked chips and sauce Mr Smiths.
“We’re buying the best possible beef we can buy. If, you start with a fantastic product, and cook it correctly, you’re halfway there. The sticky cheek, we now brine with steam, and then it is braised, then stickied up, and then we serve that with a beautiful gherkin ketchup, which cuts through the rich dish, and some beautiful chips that take three to four days to make, and then a beautiful sauce that, again, takes two or three days to make”.
While the dish looks simple on a surface level, there’s so many steps to getting it done. Years ago, the team would have bought a bog-standard piece of beef, and wouldn’t have brined the meats. What’s more, some 16 other flavours would have been on the plate, whereas now, it’s pared down to four ingredients. Yet, these ingredients are the best they can possibly be.
Even the chips are a cut above the rest: “As the chips are a three day process, they’re also the best possible chips you can have,” said Smith. “It's just about looking at the individual things, something as simple as a chip, and thinking, how can we make that the best it can be?”
All the desserts are things people want to eat, but that doesn’t stop them being “very refined”. For Smith, this uses an under-deliver, over-deliver tactic, as people expect a classic lemon pie, then when it comes, reaction ‘bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting that’.
“We’ve always got a chocolate dessert on, not too sweet, a vanilla slice, which is something very, very northern and something people can relate to. That stays on all year round, and we just change the garnish as and when the fruits change.
“There’s lemon meringue pie that's been on since we opened in 2009, and then some beautiful cheeses, then every now and again we'll have a soufflé”.
It’s also important to stick to what you’d expect to find on pub menus, in order to stay true to the venue, Smith added. On the various menus, there’s oxtail and beef suet pudding, smoked salmon, chicken liver parfait and soup, which accompanies the pub’s signature cheese hotdog.
“If you come to a great British pub, these are the sort of things you’d expect to find on a menu,” said Smith. “But we do the best possible versions of these dishes”.
The menu at Freemasons has been year’s in the making. This means that Smith and his team are “very comfortable” now, with the dishes they serve.
Smith said: “The food is super consistent. We know that every day, the food is going out exactly the same, and every customer no matter who they are, is eating the same food”.