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Stagg-ering food - just wish it was a bit closer to home.

Heading west as we fled Birmingham in search of honest, inspiring cooking, we happened upon that well-known gastrodestination, Kidderminster. Here, on a main road, was one of those garish signs designed to tempt the foolhardy to part with their money. It declared: "Buy one meal, get second free" or something like that. The sturdy construction of the bright yellow, bile coloured sign suggested this was not a temporary promotion but a permanent state of affairs. This is BOGOF dining and it is endemic in pubs.

Landlords bemoan the decline of their trade and say a pub closes every two-and-a-half minutes, although there never seems to be a particular shortage of them. Publicans rightly point to the damaging impact of booze taxation, which is disproportionately high, and say they get no help from the Chancellor, whatever his political tipple.

What failing pubs do not point out is the generally poor, or extremely modest (ie. dull) level of dining offered in the majority of our local hostelries. Guides such as Michelin have done much to champion the revival in cooking in pub kitchens, but by golly there are some stinkers, loads of them. Dip your toes into the chilly waters where the "foodie" intelligensia fear to tread and you are likely to get them bitten off. These waters swim with sharks. They just happen to wear chefs' hats, are called Colin and serve catering pack mulch.

In order to boost dwindling profits, pubs have diversified into food as fuel, rather than pleasure. There is a reason pubs can afford to give away free meals in BOGOF deals: what they are offering their customers is rubbish. Rubbish does not cost much to reheat, or deep fry. You don't need to know what you are doing. Hell, I could do it.

The term gastro-pub hasn't helped. Anywhere with stripped wooden floors, braised ox cheeks and something "three ways" is a gastro-pub. Can't we have our pubs back, please, without the gastro bit? Just serve fewer dishes, cook them well and the people will come. Is it that difficult to understand? It's not if you are Steve and Nicola Reynolds. There is not a whiff of gastro-pub pomposity about The Stagg Inn, which they run at Titley in the wildest of west Herefordshire. Be warned: this place is nearly in Wales and it will take you a while to get here from Brum. A 60-mile drive took us two hours - that's a four-hour round trip. The good news is that you won't need sandwiches on the journey home.

The Stagg was the first pub to be awarded a Michelin star in 2001 and it has retained the gong ever since. The great thing is that it still feels like a pub, with people drinking beer in the bar, rather than a restaurant trying to look like a pub with tryhards slurping the latest white wine fad.

Reynolds' cooking is a model of consistency, combining the best of British produce with traditional cooking, classic influences and the odd bit of 21st century whizzery, which I'm not so sure about. So spiced beetroot soup comes with a wasabi foam and a mackerel tartare had horseradish "snow." I've had enough of "snow" - and "soil" and "ashes" and "textures of", come to think of it. On the flip side, many diners will welcome the neat, rather than showy, plating of food. The cooking, not the crockery supplier, "takes the lead role. How about that for a novelty act? The Stagg does what many places could do if only they had the skill and commitment. There is no boundary pushing here just superb ingredients, coaxed into dishes of deceptive simplicity. This food to raise the spirits and nourish. Yes, you will feel full, but you will have arrived their in relaxed style.

The Reynolds had just re-opened following a twoweek holiday when we swooped last Friday. There were a couple of glitches - a forgotten portion of potatoes and an overcooked partridge breast, which took the shine off an otherwise excellent dish.

Good, homemade potato crisps arrived at the start of the meal with a silly balsamic foam (think salt and vinegar crisps). The fluffy vinegar seemed out of keeping with the generally no-faff approach.

Seared scallops and pumpkin puree were devoured. The scallops were small but plentiful and had been chosen for their sweetness rather than macho brassiness. When he shops for produce, Reynolds appreciates that flavour, not size, is everything. Good-sized, tender snails from Credenhill, Herefordshire, came with soft, almost caramel-like chestnuts. Superb winter cooking.

I loved my starter of baked and pressed pig's head with shallot and parsley mayonnaise. It is dishes like this, with its addition of piquant pickled radish discs, that suggests Reynolds, who makes his own sausages and faggots, is a chef of assurance, grounded in traditional British cuisine.

The main courses sang of the season. Madgett's Farm duck was faultlessly cooked - pink roast breast and confit leg with proper crushed swede, carrot and cider potato. The beef out here is sensational and the well-flavoured but not overly strong rump steak came with a good bearnaise sauce and crunchy chips. It seems daft to complain about portion sizes but the steaks were too big rather than too small. By the way, The Stagg also does lighter bar meals and the steak sandwiches, two of which we saw delivered in the bar, looked dreamy. They cost PS12.90, which is a total steal.

Well-cooked sea bass fillet was served with a classic mushroom duxelle, charred leeks, dill oil and (forgotten but delivered when prompted) potato dauphinoise. I was torn between so many dishes and would have loved the belly pork with candied apple, aubergine, samphire and noisette potatoes. So I wanted the locally shot partridge to be perfect, and it wasn't quite. The bird came with juicy figs, non-overpowering bacon lentils, savoy cabbage and a tremendous sauce. The confit partridge was good but the breast was a little dry. I shed a quiet tear.

The prices, it needs saying, are remarkable for this level of cooking. The duck was PS17.90, the steak PS16.90 and the partridge PS17.90. The three-course Sunday lunch, offering variations on the a la carte, is less than PS20. Yes, 20 quid. Stick that up your gastro-pub rip-off joint.

Some of my fellow diners flagged at this stage and had the excellent ice creams (vanilla, clotted cream, cinnamon) and sorbets (blackberry, apple, mango). A well executed (large) lemon tart was boozed up with some blackcurrants soaked in Jo Hilditch's local Herefordshire cassis. Reynolds is renowned for his creme brulee, which come as a (forgivable) "trio" - vanilla, coffee and Armagnac - but I could not resist the chocolate cake and clotted cream ice cream. It was utterly delicious, one of my favourite choco cakes, with well-pitched gloop of salt caramel.

Half bottle of Californian Elysium Black Muscat completed the heavenly picture.

As I have said, it is a yomp to Titley, but don't be put off by the drive. The Stagg offers accommodation in the pub and there are additional rooms four minutes walk away in The Vicarage. If I was a man of leisure, I'd go for Sunday lunch, stay on and sleep it off. For an excellent dinner and a good bottle of wine, expect to pay about PS50 a head.

Birmingham does not have a pub offering food approaching the standard of The Stagg. Why can't someone do it?

The Stagg does what many places could do if only they had the skill and commitment

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Great pub food is 'only' a four hour round-trip away, at The Stagg Inn in deepest Herefordshire
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 29, 2012
Words:1275
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