William Sitwell reviews Hitchen’s Barn, Oakham: ‘Delicious food dished up with charm and efficiency’

The Hitchens' timber-beamed barn is a soft and casual space
The Hitchens' timber-beamed barn is a soft and casual space

A Friday afternoon funeral has its uses for a restaurant critic. One can study a map, locate the church, then have a gander at what scribble-worthy hostelries may lurk nearby.

And if I’m travelling on my own, that lunch can provide a moment to read the paper and ponder on the deceased. Thus I’m in Oakham at Hitchen’s Barn, Hitchen being the surname of owners Neil and Louise (he’s the chef, she’s the manager). And they are a magnificent twosome, with him turning out highly competent and delicious food and her dishing it up with charm and efficiency.

They are so good at what they do that I hope they relish their downtime and don’t spend too many of their spare moments moaning about those annoying diners on table three or a dodgy box of veg from a supplier, or hoping the sore throat that has afflicted a waitress doesn’t slay the kitchen porter. One sees this hospitality couple in action here and there – it’s a wonderful thing to witness, so if it was the dream, I hope they’re living it.

The daily set lunch menu is heroically good value
The daily set lunch menu is heroically good value

The Hitchens’ timber-beamed barn, not far from the centre of this charming East Midlands town, is a soft and casual space and a tribute, perhaps, to the rural auction house. There are random wooden tables and chairs – some kitchen, some ex-chapel – with cushions on all. On the walls are collections of mirrors, vintage saucepans, ancient cooking implements, antique bread boards and the sides of grand old wooden wine boxes.

There’s a modest menu of about 15 dishes, firmly based on seasonality and local producers and cooked in a style that I would describe as unfussy modern British gastro pub.

The daily set lunch menu, meanwhile, is heroically good value, offering a choice of two dishes for starter, main and pud, at £24.50 for two courses, and an extra £4 for a third. I was drawn to the words ‘Welsh rarebit crouton’, and was soon sipping on a velvety cauliflower soup with a marvellous, rich and naughty charred chunk of cheese on toast. And wondering about my old pal’s mother who had died.

To my 11-year-old self, she was glamorous, always tanned, relaxed and kind. And when her second husband died suddenly, mere weeks after their wedding, our prep-school headmaster corralled some of us to comfort our chum. ‘He was rather upset,’ I wrote home that week in the summer of 1981, adding, ‘but we cheered him up and he has just about forgotten about it or doesn’t really mind now.’ Such are the building blocks of lifelong friendship.

William was drawn to the Welsh rarebit crouton
William was drawn to the Welsh rarebit crouton

I sipped a glass of excellent Australian pinot noir (Three Lions from Plantagenet Wines) and relished a quite wonderful main course of pollock, its flesh faultless. It came in a sweet, rich bisque-like sauce (think fish soup from the finest Parisian bistro) and was teamed with new potatoes, clams and samphire. A conventional dish, yes, but when done this well it’s as good a thing as you might wish to have on a blustery Friday lunchtime in Rutland. On the side I had some charred broccoli, not overly dressed, and simply scattered with some peanuts.

For pud, a glorious blend of pear and chocolate – the fruit poached with caramel to the point where it was yielding but retained its bite; with it a chocolate mousse and a refreshing spoonful of vanilla ice cream.

Hitchen’s Barn is surely the pride of Oakham. And the next time a wonderful mum of an old friend dies, I hope there’s an establishment handy to provide such magnificent comfort.

Advertisement