The Pony & Trap, Chew Magna, restaurant review: 'A scrumdiddlyumptious gastropub'

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Pony & Trap, Chew Magna,
Lunch at this 200-year-old pub fills Matthew Bayley with childish delight Credit: Emli Bendixen

I blame Charlie Pigeon. At least, I think it was his fault. Certainly the menu at The Pony & Trap said it was, because it identified him specifically as the man responsible for gunning down what I was eating.

All I know is that one minute I was greedily scoffing the heart and liver of a bird he shot (along with some mushrooms and a large piece of gravy-soaked bread), and the next my 11-year-old daughter was staring at me in disgust and calling me a vampire.

And as Charlie’s the one who apparently pulled the trigger on the pigeon in the first place, I’m not sure I should have been shouldering all the blame.

In response, I launched into a well-rehearsed argument about how it’s only respectful to an animal that someone (Charlie) has killed to be eaten, to consume as much of it as possible, not just the obvious bits. Plus, it tastes great.

Look, I said, as my argument reached its irresistible conclusion, it’s not totally offal. My wife groaned and gave my daughter permission to roll her eyes at me.

So thanks to Charlie Pigeon, I was officially condemned by my children, not only for being a bloodthirsty demon of the night, but also for having the sense of humour of an embarrassing uncle, not the chilled-out entertainer of a father I aspire to be. And lunch had been going so well.

We drove through the Mendip Hills to The Pony & Trap on a typical May bank holiday – that is, a day sunny enough to encourage visions of spending the afternoon warming your back in the pub garden, but brisk enough to drive you back inside within minutes.

Fortunately, there’s a pretty decent view once you’re there. On a quiet lane high up in the hills, the whitewashed gastropub – recently voted Britain’s third-best – looks down on a rural English scene: patchworked, quilted and newly ploughed. 

This is hard-working farming country. And when you’re a restaurant with a 'field to fork’ ethos, it helps to be surrounded by fields from which to fork.

The entire reverse side of the lunch menu reinforced the point: alongside the aforementioned marksman, Charlie, were credited a virtual encyclopedia of West Country food suppliers, from Cornish fishmongers to Bristolian hedgerow foragers. The map of farmers, gardeners, huntsmen and cheesemakers was as much an assertion of regional pride as it was a display of supply-and-demand economics.

 Rhubarb jelly with buttermilk ice cream  Credit: Emli Bendixen

A local boy to his wellies, chef and owner Josh Eggleton took a conscious decision to forego London’s big kitchens and stay close to his roots when he opened this country pub more than  a decade ago. Within striking distance of Bristol, Bath and Wells, he’s built a confident British menu that, while not cheap, emphasises robust flavours  and where those flavours come from.

Entering the 200-year-old pub, we were led through a reassuring interior of lowish ceilings, nooks, crannies and snug banquettes before arriving at an open oak-beamed back room looking out over that view.  The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming. Service was friendly, attentive and knowledgeable, while the soundtrack to our meal veered wildly yet pleasingly from indie favourites Bon Iver and Sigur Rós to Dire Straits.

What can be home-made, is: complementary handmade crisps arrived with sour cream and chives; sourdough bread came with sea-salt-sprinkled butter, churned right here.

From the snack menu, we ate crunchy Scotch (quail’s) eggs with brown sauce – a full English in one bite. Delicate slices of lamb ham had a deep, meaty aftertaste, and a sharp vinaigrette livened up luxurious beef tartare on a mini Yorkshire pudding. 

'Plump, sweet mussels’ at The Pony & Trap Credit: Emli Bendixen

For starters, plump, sweet mussels were bathed in cream and local cider, and dressed with fronds of samphire; then there was that pigeon – earthy, gummy, deep brown and irresistibly plate-lick-worthy. My seven-year-old son – a fan of The BFG – declared his main of ham, egg and chips (the luscious slab of meat accompanied by a light piccalilli) 'scrumdiddlyumptious’, while my daughter’s fish and chips (grilled hake) disappeared faster than a chocolate frog on the Hogwarts Express.  

A well-aged pork chop came thick and juicy with Christmassy spiced apples, celeriac and a light black pudding. And, to my childish delight, the whole lemon sole lifted away from the bone in cartoon fashion, the fish beautifully cooked, firm and moist. 

However (and these are tiny grumbles), the seaweed butter and burnt lemon alongside the fish were a little polite for my taste, and an over-the-top tahini dressing on our shared greens also got in the way.

Our stated ambition of a country walk after lunch was replaced by the more achievable mission of moving to sit in the beer garden for pudding (coats at the ready). We finished our meals with a wonderfully balanced rhubarb jelly and buttermilk ice cream, and a lovely, pistachio-heavy crème caramel.

With the sun briefly peeking through the clouds and the countryside spread out in front of us, the day had a feel of deep and happy springtime.

I was left to wonder: which two gastropubs are better than this? And can the Telegraph send me to them too?