Among the positive influences of the ancient Romans, somewhere between underfloor heating and democracy, there is hospitality. For the Romans it was sacred. And to make sure there was no doubt about its importance, when Jupiter wasn’t tied up with issues like thunder he watched over ius hospitia, the law of hospitality. So when I come across examples of appalling hospitality I like to imagine Jupiter dishing out a lightning strike to offenders.
I’m like the SAS on the ground indicating a target for a devastating drone strike. A sour greeting at a restaurant: KAPOW! Sniffy sommelier not letting me pour my own wine: BIFF! Amid the ruins of these lightning strikes I’d feel lessons had been learnt.
But for the good guys, the god would sprinkle gold dust, and I’m happy to tell you that Jupiter would be smiling down on The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon. For in this restaurant, every sinew is strained to deliver the H word. I couldn’t find a single member of staff who didn’t smile, make us feel welcome and give us the impression that we had every right to be there.
They were all focused on the earnest endeavour of creating pleasure. A barman relished the opportunity to mix a daiquiri like it was his birthday treat. The waiter who took and delivered our orders elucidated on the menu, gave recommendations and cleared plates like he’d won the lottery.
I popped my head into a part of the restaurant where the chefs push bits of animal into charcoal and wood-fired ovens (you can watch the action while dining at a counter), and the cooks looked up, smiled and offered cheery greetings.
And as we took our seats, a man brought a trolley laden with naughty drinks and house wines. Deftly he swirled booze and ice to deliver a Woodsman-crafted negroni.
As we perused the menu, cuts of meat were proferred on a tray carried out of a large display fridge – a bit like the way waiters take you into the kitchens in tavernas in Greece to show you their fresh fish.
Now, doubtless all this theatrical bowing, scraping and cheeriness is intended to elicit funds from your pocket, but God they do it well, and naturally.
The Woodsman is a den of pleasure that gives gratuitous feasting a good name. In the centre of this ancient Warwickshire town, it’s been recently refurbished and is an adjunct to a hotel, but as good as independent with its own entrance from the street. Wood panelling and beams, some of which date back to the 15th century, merge with more modern decor and furniture.
The brains behind it is Mike Robinson, occasional TV chef and co-owner of a posh pub in London’s Fulham. Mike is an outdoorsy chap who likes to paint a picture of his life as a man who wanders through ancient English forests grabbing mushrooms and catching deer – for he is The Woodsman.
His menu is filled with words like fallow deer, muntjac, pigeon, seaweed, faggot and bone marrow. They don’t sell chips or mashed potato but ‘The Woodsman’s Dirty Mash’. It’s the sort of menu you can imagine being described by a pirate waving a cutlass for emphasis.
I started with leeks ‘cooked in the embers’ with flecks of ricotta and a buttery sauce. The finest example of this I ever had was cooked by a man called Mark Blatchford when he had a restaurant in west London called John Doe. He placed a whole leek in his enormous charcoal oven, peeled back the charred parts to reveal soft leaves, over which he drizzled a nutty sauce. This version wasn’t quite as soft and rich, but still mighty fine.
Emily then had a T-bone of fallow deer, which came as unappealing-looking dark brown/grey chops. But it was quite the most beautiful piece of venison I have tried. Rich and tender flesh and not too gamey.
I had a wooden board lined with chunks of charred and pink Hereford beef. It was perfect along with some marrow bone topped with breadcrumbs and a lovely faggot. But I wished I’d had a whole plate of fallow to myself. And I’ve been wanting one ever since. If deer can be this good I don’t know why more chefs don’t cook it.
We couldn’t cope with The Woodsman’s s’mores and other puddings, but vowed to return for another dose of welcomes and charred flesh from this gastro-pleasuredome.