DISH DETECTIVE: Pub grub that's as alluring on winter days as it is in summer

The Shoe, Exton
The Shoe, Exton
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The Dish Detective first went to The Shoe, in Exton, about 18 months ago, maybe a touch over. We had cause to be in the area one Saturday and fancied a treat for lunch; and The Shoe’s reputation drew us.

As we hadn’t booked, it was a squeeze to get us in, and in the end a table for two was found in one corner.

Steak and red wine pie at The Shoe Inn, Exton

Steak and red wine pie at The Shoe Inn, Exton

It was busy and we ordered some food, enjoying the naughty treat of a Saturday lunchtime pint.

Fifteen minutes later a barman popped up apologising for the time it might take to cook the food (about which we hadn’t complained and weren’t bothered, being just happy to have a seat) and uttering the immortal words: 'Please have some of this bread - we baked it this morning'.

My word, if there was a way to get to a hungry wo/man’s heart, that was the phrase to use. And it was good bread too.

The Shoe sells its home-baked – or at least boozer-baked – bread, and very good it is too. And it’s just part of the reason why it features high up in the Fantasy Pubs league that the Dish Detective curates (and thinks about too often for its own good. Like, every day. Sometimes hourly).

That day the beer garden – which looks more like a meadow – was full of families, friends and all sorts, and the ice cream kiosk there (tastefully done, looking like a posh shed) was doing a roaring trade.

And we were also impressed because while nominally a chain pub, owned by Wadworth – admittedly an admirable brewery – it feels like it’s its own mistress, and that is important (see any Wetherspoons pub for the alternative).

We’re not here discuss 18 months ago. But the good news is that it’s just as alluring in winter. Let’s face it, few of us are going to be lucky enough to live in Exton – one of the loveliest of the many lovely Meon Valley villages – but here’s a real reason to visit. And visit on a monthly basis….

Two of us and the baby turned up again on a winter Saturday lunchtime (although this time we’d booked). It was tight – they could only accommodate us early on and were booked out between 1pm and 2pm (and a touch either side); a good sign.

I ordered the steak and red wine pie (£14.95), because it was winter and there was no reason not to. The pie has a puff pastry crust, and a quite wonderful soft and tender filling. The gravy was silky but thick. When people talk in hushed tones about Japanese ramen noodles and how the same pan has kept the stock bubbling for decades and it contains history, that’s what this pie tasted of – it gave you depth, reassurance and mainly happiness.

It also had the logo of The Shoe embossed into the crust, which gave the DD great joy –as did the fact that the mustard grain mash it was served with had been shaped to look like a potato.

Small but good things.

The pile of roasted winter veg was also a delight – caramelised from roasting and so sweet yet hearty at the same time.

The DD’s companion was similarly satisfied. A piece of hake was served on a base of pesto vegetables, but more importantly with a string of cherry tomatoes on the vine.

It was a great pairing of the sweet, the mild, and the slightly tangy and spicy.

But more than just the food it’s the fact that The Shoe seems to have it all nailed. God knows the DD is more than happy to put the boot in where needed, but really, when you’re at a pub which has it all sorted you should praise it to the high heavens. Just wish I lived within walking distance...

(And you know what, we accidentally left the baby's water cup behind, and the barman ran out into the car park to return. Full marks sir, full marks Shoe)