The Crown Inn, Upton
Hidden away in a corner nook of The Crown Inn, I am nibbling crunchy scotch eggs with a glass of Pietas Red to hand. Life is sweet. The space wins an easy ‘dix points’ for atmosphere and decor; it is not loud, it is not kitsch — never segueing into rustic theme-park territory — but understated, modern and thoroughly British: all cow-print rugs, exposed flint, vintage maps of Hampshire and a delicious wood fire, much needed on this bone-cold Thursday lunchtime.
Elsewhere there’s a coffee lounge and two eating spaces, including a light-filled conservatory which is perfect for large parties.
After a big refurb and four months into new management, The Crown has firmly positioned itself at the beating heart of this farming community. It uses North Hampshire suppliers (more on this later), hosts shooting lunches and enjoys solid local support: Hurstbourne Tarrant mums rate it for end-of-term drinks and during my visit a happy stream of retired, red-trousered Gentlemen headed to their tables greeting manager, Amanda J’Bair by name — being a Freehouse must surely add to this relaxed, organic approach.
So to Amanda and her partner in life and business, head-chef Lewis Spreadbury. They are the key to this venture with the vigour of youth (are they out of their twenties? I’m too British to ask), combined with a solid grounding in the restaurant world at respected Upham pubs, The Thomas Lord and The Woolpack.
Theirs is a Hampshire love story. A new arrival from London, Amanda met Lewis when they both worked at The Woolpack in Totford, the very same pub where his Grandparents went a’courting.
The couple then ran Berkshire institution, The Bunk Inn. By all accounts this was a huge success, so much so that villagers clubbed together to give them a parting gift — John Lewis vouchers to buy the understated Ralph Lauren wallpaper you’ll see in The Crown’s bar area.
Amanda is the warm soul of the pub — assured, knowledgeable, friendly, she is a born host and it’s clear that the locals love her. Meanwhile Lewis, the kitchen alchemist, is one of a new breed of chefs exploring the art of butchery, forgotten cuts of meat, and locally sourced food. You’ve heard the catchy media labels: Nose-to-Tail, The 25 Mile Menu, soundbites rapidly hurtling towards cliché, but this meal was an education in their true meaning.
Rewind a decade. I lived in Florence with a family of Sardinians whose parents were farmers. Every week baskets of sun-sweetened oranges, lemons, tomatoes, artichokes and the tenderest kid meat arrived: flavours in technicolour, a revelation to this Hampshire farmer’s daughter brought up on bland, black-and-white supermarket fodder (with the occasional ray of sunshine, otherwise known as venison road-kill). So to have a similar experience but with produce raised on my home-turf was, well, I’ll leave the purple prose to the food.
To start the scotch egg with its richly flavoured gammon from Oaktrack, a local smallholding in Charlton Down, Andover.
Then wild mushrooms, a poached duck egg and salty-sweet air dried ham from fellow Upton residents, Parsonage Farm. The main event was a ‘Butcher’s steak’, (the tasty cut that butchers keep to themselves) with all the tenderness of sirloin, plus a slow-cooked depth of flavour achieved by immersing the meat in a bath of warm water before searing it.
The tarragon and garlic pesto was a master-stroke and awesomely tasty with the beef dripping chips; again the dripping eked out all the animal’s flavour creating pure chip joy: crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside.
Finally the pudding. I’m not normally a desert kind-a girl, but for research purposes I plunged in to the honey and lavender ‘burnt Cambridge cream’. Gently baked, light as a feather yet dairy rich, it was a million heavenly miles from the gloopy crème brûlée of my childhood.
And to round it all off, coffee. Seriously good coffee; an all too rare experience in this neck of the North Hampshire woods. Amanda sources her beans from Winchester’s award-winning Moonroast, yes people we’re talking “Taste Awards” three gold-stars for the Ethiopian blend and even the decaf has a very respectable one-star.
If you’re missing that mostly urban treat of good coffee to takeaway, then pop in to The Crown from 10am every day, except Monday, for your flat-white fix. They do weekend brunch as well.
Anything else to add? There’s live music on Friday evenings and, this being deep countryside, you might want to walk off your meal: northbound takes you to Upton Manor then onwards to Vernham Dean or amble up the main road for a few metres, with The Crown to your right, and take the footpath that leads to Tangley.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: A family lunch or large gathering – there’s plenty of space in the conservatory dining room. Children are very welcome, but this is also a great venue for dinner with friends, or bar snacks and live music (I’ve heard good things about the pork crackling), weekend brunch and there are great local walks as well.
Not for: Hard to answer, if you’re after smart, silver-service this wouldn’t be for you, but the food is definitely restaurant quality.
£££: Two courses average at £21 or £26 for three.