Review: The Windsor Castle Inn, Lye
From print works to gastro pub, Mark Andrews finds The Windsor Castle's pledge to serve up tasty grub with a Black Country twist is true to its word.
It might have been after the Christmas party season, but there was barely a spare table in any of the Windsor Castle's numerous dining rooms.
The slick, jazzy bar was packed to the rafters with an endless stream of customers jockeying for position at the counter.
How strange to think that 10 years ago this was a print works. And more to the point, how glad must print shop owner John Sadler be that he decided to take the plunge and enter the licensed trade at a time when many were trying to get out of it.
Amid the stories of gloom in the pub trade over the last few years, this is a tale to gladden the heart.
Back in 2004, John found he had a bit of spare capacity at his print shop and thought he would use it to revive an old family tradition. His grandfather, Thomas Sadler, ran a brewery in the early 20th century, so why not use the extra space to russle up a few of his old recipes?
Within weeks, John and his son Chris were struggling to cope with demand, and after just three months John made the bold decision to turn his paper warehouse into a brewery and restaurant.
These days, the brewery side of the business is run by Chris, while John's daughter Emily and her husband Gareth Bedford take care of the pub and restaurant. There are also bedrooms for anybody who fancies an overnight stay, and the Windsor Castle has certainly attracted a fair bit of attention since its launch.
In its first 12 months, it was voted the Campaign for Real Ale's regional pub of the year. And then in 2009 it attracted more publicity when it was praised by food and drink expert Oz Clarke in BBC's Oz and James Drink for Britain. It also featured in a recent episode of Doctors, but I don't suppose a lot of people would have noticed that.
Anyway, that's the hype, but what's it actually like?
Well, if you like you bread cooked with beer, it's going to be right up your street.
Yes, really. Beer baked bread is not something I'd come across before, but it really does make for a pleasant way to begin your meal. It perfectly sums up the slightly quirky approach to food that the Windsor Castle takes.
But before the food, I feel I must mention the car park, which is hopeless. There's just a handful of very tight spaces next to the entrance. For a place which attracts so many visitors, it is woefully inadequate. You may well find yourself having to drive backwards to leave the car park at busy times. And don't feel tempted to chance your luck on the car park of the neighbouring balti house. In the past, its owners have (understandably) taken a very dim view of that indeed.
They seem to be a hardy lot around here. Despite having visited on numerous occasions over the years, I don't think there has been a single time when there's not been somebody sat in the small sheltered patio at the front. Even in the depths of winter. Inside, it's hard to believe it has ever been anything other than a gastro pub. The softly lit open bar area is vibrant, a sort of minimalist cool with stripped floorboards and retro advertising. The dining area is concentrated in a number of smallish rooms, each with their own distinct character. Our room, a cosy little area looking out on to the main road at the front, was named Worcester Sorcerer Street after one of the Sadlers' popular brews. It had a homely feel and was a little cramped with six rustic tables and a piano in the corner, but oozed charm.
However, the table we sat at was far too low for the chairs. I'm not a heavily built man but I spent the entire evening with with my thighs jammed between the seat and the bottom edge of the table, which was uncomfortable to say the least. Further investigations – when the neighbouring tables had been vacated, I hasten to add – revealed that ours was the only table in the room to suffer that affliction, so I do hope the owners will take a look.
So, on to the food. The menu, which has won awards for its traditional home cooking with a Black Country twist, features a mixture of changing seasonal dishes as well as staple favourites.
The splendidly named Italian head chef Salvatore Zero – now there's a man who is crying out for his own TV series – places great emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, and many of the recipes make use of Sadler's ales. The menu also makes suggestions as to which beers go best with many of the dishes.
For example, it recommends the venison bangers served with a cheese mash and gravy made from Sadler's Mud City Stout, are best eaten with a glass of Sadler's Red IPA, whereas the braised pheasant in red wine is an ideal companion for a pint of Worcester Sorcerer.
I briefly considered the sausages, but I've been averse to venison following a bad experience many years ago – but that's another story. The steak pie, made from homemade short crust pastry, filled with slow-cooked pieces of Herefordshire steak, and served in a gravy made from an unspecified home-brewed beer, sounded irresistible. The menu suggests it's another dish best served with a pint of Worcester Sorcerer. Sadly, it seemed that lots of other people liked the idea of this, and the pie was off the menu.
In the end, we both went for steak, myself going for the fillet steak in peppercorn sauce, and the girlfriend choosing sirloin with bearnaise sauce.
Both were of the highest quality, and superbly cooked, with the homemade sauces deserving special attention. If one was to be ultra critical, we both agreed that they were slightly on the well-side of the medium-well we had asked for. The texture and flavour of the meat was faultless, and the generous, creamy helpings of the excellent sauces were just exploding with different flavours.
The hearty, thick country-style chips were wonderful too. Just the sort of thing you promise to give up as part of your New Year's resolution, and one bite reminds you why you will never stick to that pledge.
At this stage we ought to talk about the ales which, of course, are what attracts many people here in the first place.
My personal favourite is Jack's Pale Ale, a light, zesty brew with sharp citrus notes. Mellow Yellow, a slightly stronger honey ale, comes a close second. Other popular choices are the aforementioned Worcester Sorcerer, a full-bodied old English style bitter; Red House, which Oz Clarke described as the best mild he'd ever tasted, and Hop Bomb, a strong, powerful Indian Pale Ale. Whatever you try, there isn't a bad one among them.
Wine-wise, the girlfriend initially tried a glass of Jack and Gina Zinfandel, a sweet and fruity Californian rosé which I'd never heard of before. She followed it up with a glass of Lyric pinot grigio blush, which she found a little sharp.
Both meals were filling but we decided there was still room for dessert. I chose the locally-produced ice cream, selecting cappuccino, vanilla and honeycomb from the extensive selection of flavours, while the girlfriend went for the chocolate brownie. The ice creams were excellent, while the well-presented brownie was good but a little heavy after our considerable mains.
The total bill was £67.60 – reduced from £71 after we had been incorrectly charged for a pint of Hop Bomb which neither of us had imbibed. Had we not enjoyed the evening, I would probably be making more of that, but the error was quickly – and apologetically – put right, and it didn't really put a damper on what was on the whole a hugely enjoyable experience. Lye has rightly built up a reputation in recent years as the Black Country's curry capital, but this superb and characterful little bistro is a reminder that you don't have to have a balti to enjoy a good night out in these parts.
I do wonder whether the Windsor Castle is beginning to outgrow the old print works. A food-orientated pub really needs a decent parking area. The Sadlers could achieve so much more if they took on one of the many vacant pubs which are going to waste.
Now I'm no businessman, I might have no idea what I'm talking about, but the prospect is tantalising.
If this is what the Sadlers can do with an old print shop, what could they do with a purpose-built pub restaurant, in a more high-profile location, with ample parking? I don't know, but I'd love to find out.
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