Warwickshire Life editor Colin Clark visits the Durham Ox to find out how new owner and chef Stefan Smith is settling in.
He may be a new face at Shrewley's Durham Ox, but Stefan Smith is well known by diners in Warwickshire, having worked, managed and even owned various pubs around the county.
Parisian Stefan came to England eight years ago with a view to learning both the language and the workings of English kitchens. He had every intention of returning home and working again in Paris - he trained at Le Touquet Catering School in France - but, as can happen, he met the girl of his dreams and has now set up home in Warwick with Catherine and their young son Luca. So, Paris's loss is definitely Warwickshire's gain.
Stefan took over at the Durham Ox last year and his first job was to close for business and start reshaping the interior. His intention was to give the bar a higher profile, giving the Ox more of a pub feel.
"I think it's fair to say that it was previously more of a restaurant than a pub, I wanted to build up the pub part, make it a place where people can pop in for a pint without staying for a meal.
"Obviously, as a chef, I also intended to provide first class food, I'm just switching the balance a little," explains Stefan. "I love village good pubs and that is the way I want to take the Ox, I want to make it a part of the community."
So much a part of the community that Stefan has actually opened up a traditional fish and chip shop at the back of the building.
When I say traditional that isn't exactly correct. You can order your fish and chips and wait for them to be cooked or, alternatively, you can order them, go into the pub and have a drink and receive a text when you meal is ready.
"It's all part of the service," says Stefan with a smile. "Text messages are used for just about everything these days so why not to tell someone their supper is ready."
But we were there for more than fish and chips, good as they may well be. A quick drink at the bar and we were led through a sort of farmhouse kitchen with a table groaning under the weight of various cheeses, into the dining area.
"I wanted to have a definite break between the bar area and the dining area and this seemed like a good idea, Says Stefan, "it's also done wonders for cheese sales."
The dining room is a deliberate mix of styles, some areas with wooden floors, some with carpet, some chairs Italian some Dutch, there is also an alcove where ten people can share one table and even draw the curtains to block out the rest of the room.
"I wanted style but I also wanted fun. I like the way the dining room switches styles yet still fits in with the whole ambience of the pub. The bar area is the same, I've tried to blend different types of furniture to give an informal feel to it all," says Stefan.
The menu maintains an informal feel with a strong specials board as well as "Old School" specials such as Bangers and Mash, Shepherd's Pie and, of course, Chip Shop Fish and Chips. There are also set menus at 10 and 15.
I started with a bowl of devilled frittered whitebait with a generous portion of home-made tartare sauce, while Sue maintained the seafood theme with roasted Tiger prawns served with chorizo and white wine sauce. I was also tempted by crab thermidor on toast an mussels mariniere but were both very happy with our final choices. The whitebait had just the right amount of chilli kick while the chorizo added that little bit of zing to the excellent prawns.
Onto mains and, Old School and set menu options apart, Stefan keeps things simple with three options from the grill, seven from the stove and three from the specials board.
Meat for the grill is all provided by Aubrey Allen butchers and having already learned that Stefan's favourite was the beef entrecote I would have made the same choice had it not been for the mouth-watering appeal of sucking pig with thin, crisp crackling... how could a man resist?
Served with on a bed of mash alongside a roast pear and tomato and with seasonal vegetables, it was an absolute delight. Tender, sweet and with just the right amount of fat. Sometimes salad and lean cuts of meat are the right choice but sometimes a beautiful piece of perfectly cooked pork is what really hits the spot.
I don't care how many calories it has, I can always go on a longer walk in the morning. Whatever this added to my waistline it was worth it!
Sue, more waistline conscious than myself, although actually with less reason to be, went for grilled turbot fillet, sauted potatoes and wilted greens with beurre blanc.
Stefan readily admits that when it comes to cooking there is nothing he likes to work with more than fresh fish and the turbot presented to Sue was real proof of this.
Firm, white and juicy, it was as fine a piece of fish I've tasted for quite a time - admittedly I didn't get to taste too much as Sue put a quick stop to my plate-invading tactics. With Stefan is presenting dishes of this quality it is no wonder that demand for fish at the Ox is rising all the time.
Onto sweets and, with six on offer, each at a fiver, we opted baked lemon tart with a red berries compote and baked New York cheese cake with raspberry coulis.
With plate-invading being perfectly acceptable on the sweet course, we helped each other polish off both dishes despite being sure we hadn't room for another crumb after completing our main meal.
The number of people Stefan greeted like old friends on the Tuesday evening we dined at the Ox indicated that many of his previous customers were popping in to see how things were working out. No doubt it won't be their last visit and it certainly won't be ours.
Also on the menu
Starters; Country pate with crostini, pickles and relish, 4.90; Dolcelatte tart with tomato, basil and balsamic red onions, 4.90; Soup of the day, 3.50.
Mains: Suckling lamb, boned and rolled and served with seasonal vegetables, 16.50; Wild salmon with roasted tomato, aged balsamic and pesto, 10.90; Flamed crispy Peking duck fajitas with chilli, bamboo shoots and rice pancakes, 9.80.
Sweets: Chocolate and cherry cake with whipped crme Chantilly; Rum and raisin bread and butter pudding; Traditional apple crumble with 'posh' custard and ice cream. All 5.