Archive review: the Dark Horse closed in February 2014.
A while ago, Brading’s former Red Lion Inn looked as though it was going to follow so many small rural pubs, and turn into housing. But it didn’t – quite the contrary.
After a sojourn as the Smart Fox, the place now seems to be running on an even keel as the Dark Horse; offering good pub grub in a very comfortable atmosphere. After first rolling up just a few weeks after the place reopened back in 2009, Matt and Cat returned with junior reviewer Bill in tow to see what the Dark Horse was up to these days.
One thing’s for sure, the Dark Horse is a nice venue. The Island’s not over-blessed with really olde worlde pubs of the traditional English type: the pub-building boom here was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the Dark Horse has plenty of authentic charm to go round. Real old wooden beams, low ceilings, flagstoned floors and stone walls give out a warmth and welcome that has been well-used. The tables are scrubbed pine, the chairs are upholstered with traditional patterns, and there seem to be more real fires than are strictly necessary for heating purposes.
One thing that hasn’t changed much is the scale of the menu. There are two opposed theories in the design of menus, which amount to either ‘short is good’, or ‘long is good’. The Dark Horse most definitely subscribes to the latter school of thought. Running to a dozen pages or so, alongside a substantial specials board (or “Special’s Board” as it was labelled) there’s certainly no lack of choice. Details of the local provenance of the food were prominent, not only were the names and locations of the suppliers shown, but there was even a handy map indicating the farm locations. Normally M&C will make a few notes about the menu, to give some idea when writing a review later of what else is on it. But this time, after leafing through this epicurean epic, they couldn’t even begin to précis it. So just assume that whatever you want, it’s probably on there.
All three of the diners found something to their taste. Each had their own criterion, which the Dark Horse proved capable of addressing with precision. Bill, a growing lad, was after volume. He picked the alarmingly-named Triple Horse Burger. Not made with horse, of course, but a reference to the pub’s name; this mammoth feast included three beefburgers, cheese, bacon, chips and salad, with a choice of sauces. Cat, by contrast, wanted something more modest, and comfortingly mild. She chose what she recalled to be exactly the same dish as she had eaten in 2009: chicken supreme. Matt was looking for novelty, and found it soon enough with ‘steak and chillies’: a 10oz sirloin steak served in naan bread with a fresh chilli salsa.
Whilst waiting for their food, the party started a debate inspired by the description of the centrepiece of Steak Night (every Wednesday night, apparently) a 68oz rump steak. Just how big was 68oz? Nobody was quite familiar enough with old-style ounces to be entirely sure, but eventually they worked out that it was 4¼ pounds, and just about two kilos. So casting around for familiar things that are still weighed in pounds, they noted that 4¼ pounds was more than half a newborn baby – probably not the ideal comparative unit.
The first meal out of the gate was the Triple Horse Burger. It caused one of those rare events: a gasp from the entire table. The towering edifice of meat and cheese certainly made young Bill’s eyes light up. He was slightly puzzled by the absence of the chilli sauce he’d asked for, and he wasn’t alone because the lad who brought it out seemed to be mystified when enquiries were made. It’s probably fair to say that with such a comprehensive menu, nobody could be familiar with the whole thing, and the waiter disappeared to the kitchen to see what it was all about. He was soon back, to check what strength of sauce Bill required, and then a third time with the promised sauce. A hiccup entirely rectified with a good recovery by the Dark Horse. The Triple Horse Burger was enough to fill the youthful diner to capacity, and he judged it a success.
Cat’s chicken supreme excellent. A mild creamy dish, the sauce of which had more than a hint of herbs and some good chunks of mushroom. Alongside came a good selection of nicely-cooked vegetables: glazed carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and French beans plus chips. All three diners remarked upon the chips which accompanied the dishes. These were far superior to the usual offerings in pubs. Big, fluffy and crisp, without a hint of greasiness, they were not a million miles from Alan Staley’s sublime thrice-cooked chips at the Royal Hotel, Ventnor. Another surprise from the Dark Horse kitchen – and a welcome one.
Triple horse burger £10.45
Steak & chillies £16.95
Chicken supreme £12.45
1 x dessert £4.00
3 x coffee £3.42
Matt didn’t really know what to expect with his steak and chillies, and when it arrived, it was still slightly mysterious. A bit of a novelty item, it was unusual on the Dark Horse menu in that it appeared to be something they’d thought up themselves, rather than a rendition of a pub classic. So, how did this work? Hidden inside a warmed naan bread Matt discovered a decent-sized bit of steak, cooked rare as requested. The naan had some sort of mayonnaise spread on the inside. On top of the meat was some fresh tomato and chilli salsa, and the whole thing came with salad and chips, and a slop of coleslaw. Now, all of these things were standard pub kitchen elements, with the possible exception of the salsa which must have been specially made, although the tomato was the only fresh bit. The meat was passable, although hardly the finest steak. But, surprisingly, the dish worked well, and as the juices from the steak mixed with chilli and tomato and worked their way into the dry naan, it all came together nicely. Matt was impressed.
Bill, having recovered from his Triple Horse, was ready for pudding. Matt and Cat decided to let him do the work there, and ordered coffee. The dessert menu was illustrated with photographs, which probably says all it needs to about that. Bill ordered one of a large range of cheesecakes, and found it satisfactory. The coffee was a disappointment at the end of an otherwise very good meal. Instant coffee served with UHT milk? You get better than that on the train these days. Still, another positive experience was to come, When Cat went up to pay at the bar, she was pleased with the modest price: reasonable value for pub food.
The Dark Horse has always delivered a comfortable environment and a broad, basic menu. This remains the case. The pub has been through a range of changes, and comments on the previous review seem to confirm that a period of stability is now to be expected. Matt and Cat predict success if the pub can consistently produce food like this. The young waiter was a pleasure to watch; he was a man that demonstrated professionalism in all of his transactions with customers. That said, it wasn’t a faultless experience, a greeting on arrival and some fresh milk for the coffee are tiny tweaks that would make a big difference. However, with such a cosy venue and great food delivered professionally, the Dark Horse is a contender.