Roughly as long as my life has had something resembling its present form, I’ve been going to the Angel in Stoke-by-Nayland. Initially it was an outlier, as the Black Horse was a fairly standard pub (which nobody I knew went to, owing to the pathological unfriendliness of the owners), and the Crown was a failed chicken-in-a-basket and carvery warehouse operated by a rapid succession of clueless employee landlords. The Angel, on the other hand, was a gastropub – roughly eight years into its time as one of the first in Suffolk when I turned up in the village – with an enviable reputation. I regret not knowing the mythical era of its decline that Spouse recalls, shortly before its conversion in 1988, when it was candlelit thanks to unpaid bills, and the only drink served was cider poured from a two-litre plastic bottle. On our most recent visit we were accompanied by Friend, who recalled working there as a waiter in the early 1970s, and she thinks it was pretty decent back then. When I first knew it in the mid-nineties, it was excellent: a lovely place to eat, with a varied and changing menu, a magical garden, and great beer, as welcoming to local drinkers as to dinner or b’n’b guests. The BSE crisis was live, so exotic meats were the thing, and I remember seeing ostrich, kangaroo and crocodile on the menu one night. When Neighbour (a canny retired farmer) fell ill one winter, the proprietors had his lunch sent down the road every day, and after he recovered he decided he rather liked that arrangement, so it continued until he died. A portrait of him hung in the snug for many years after his demise.
Eventually it changed hands, and the Crown was purchased by a consortium of Richards including the Angel’s former owner, refurbished as effectively The Angel 2.0, with much more space, more contemporary decor, and a more inventive menu. Thus began the Angel’s second decline (or nth decline), which culminated for me in a piece of dry, fibrous swordfish – I went back once a couple of years later for a gristly, petrol-flavoured steak and then put it from my mind. With the Crown just across the road, the state of the Angel’s kitchen was regrettable but not disastrous. There have been one or two successful visits since, and to be honest I’m not even sure if it’s still in the same hands now, but the Crown had secured our loyalty by that point, and they didn’t lead to anything. However, the Crown has finally lost the last of the consortium of Richards that converted it and has been sold to a chain; we’ve since had a succession of meals there in which significant aspects of the cooking weren’t properly executed, so we chose the Angel as the venue for a meal to thank Friend for looking after the cats and chickens on recent trips away.
Service these days is very much restaurant style, friendly, solicitous, with attention paid to detail. One of our waiters (the largest) could be seen clearing tables in a deserted part of the restaurant still grinning toothily, which was unnerving, but I’m pretty sure he’s safe. We were seated easily without a booking (it was a Wednesday), and I ordered as much to check the kitchen out as anything, although I was in the mood for some straightforward grub. My whitebait and calamari starter contained well cooked ingredients in light, crispy batter, served with mayo; it was a perfectly unimaginative plate, but well-executed and a pleasure to eat. I followed up with a ribeye steak.
Steak is a good test of a kitchen. You would think it would be the one thing that every chef knows how to cook properly, but it’s surprisingly easy to get it wrong, and a steak rarely arrives exactly as it should from a kitchen that serves anything else below par. In particular, a good kitchen is one from which you can order the steak how you would like it to arrive, rather than one degree more rare. I asked for rare, and what arrived was on the cooked side of rare, but rare it was, and I was relieved I hadn’t hedged my bets and asked for it blue. It was also tender, and came with its fat rendered to toothsomeness – which is more difficult to achieve the less the muscle is cooked. The accompaniments were serviceable, if more or less completely nondescript: chips, salad, and blue cheese sauce, all of which did what was asked of them without drawing attention to themselves. There are solid professional skills in the Angel’s kitchen these days, if not a great deal of creativity. Spouse and Friend were also very satisfied with their meals, which were, if I’m honest, a bit more interesting than mine, both on the menu and to look at. We finished with a lemon posset that was exactly firm enough and a scoop of raspberry sorbet that was not over-sweet or over-flavoured.
I guess my long association with the Angel has been more or less severed, at so many removes from the pub it was when I was last a regular, but I’m ready to start a new history here, if it maintains this standard. This was a meal which happened to fall on my birthday, and I wasn’t at all unhappy to have spent it as I did. The Angel doesn’t serve food with much of a connection to its locality, cleaving instead to a standardised formula for ‘fancy’ pub cooking which can be found anywhere in Britain; but that’s not a bad thing to have within walking distance of our picturesque Tudor shed.