What's it REALLY like? Marco's Wiltshire Pear Tree
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This is a restaurant review by a local food and travel writer who has been to this place many times. But I hope it's more than that - I wanted to write a bit about what it's like when a big name TV celebrity chef takes over a small country pub.
The background is: I’ve known the Pear Tree since it was done up by local entrepreneur Martin Still from 1997. Martin did a good job, turning a small basic country pub into one of the top rated gastro pubs in the country with gorgeous gardens and cute little bedrooms upstairs. For locals it was a bit precious and pricey but a nice resource to have in the next village. In 2005 and 2007 it was the country's Pub of the Year and currently holds two AA rosettes for food.
Then Martin sold the Pear Tree to the Maypole chain in 2007 and went off to do up the Methuen Arms in Corsham. He did another great job.
Predictably the Pear Tree’s food and service dipped alarmingly. In 2011 Marco Pierre White bought it, announcing in the local press that he had wanted to take it over for many years. Great things were expected. A wealthy celebrity like that makes quite an impact in a sleepy rural community. There was much fanfare locally with launch parties and press events. I’m not cross I wasn’t invited. Those things can be full of dreary sychophants and hangers-on.
But I'm a bit surprised that the author of Taste Britain (2010), who was also Editor of the BMW Magazine at the time and a tiny-bit-known as a national reviewer, blogger and travelwriter who lives within a mile would seem to be the sort you would invite along to your press events… It shows how carefully the take-over was managed I suppose.
Anyway, I stayed clear until the fuss had died down and then went along to try it out incognito.
Great things expected
So here’s the verdict: it's very very disappointing. In fact it was worse than it’s ever been. It was dreadful. I’d go as far as to say don’t bother spending those big London prices until MPW has sorted the place out – there are plenty of other good foodie pubs around the area. (The Fox at Broughton Gifford, The Somerset Arms at Semington and Martin's Methuen Arms in Corsham just for starters).
The Pear Tree still has a great garden, big car park and it’s still on the edge of open countryside in a small straggling village between Melksham and Corsham. But as soon as you step inside it feels like the charming old pub atmosphere has been sanitised.
Plain wooden tables
All the cosy rural bohemia has been stripped out. The bar area used to have old armchairs and sofas, books and magazines, old paintings and prints. They’ve all gone. It’s just plain restaurant table and chairs now. Tasteless towny style. The bar always was awkwardly placed, bang in your face as soon as you come in the door. Now it seems worse than ever - with an over-keen young barman calling you ‘Sir’ as soon as you enter. Arghhh! This is supposed to be a pub not a hotel reception.
Anyway. It was lunchtime. I was meeting an important business woman for lunch. The staff said there was no record of the booking. “Have you got the right day?” they said. I said I’d wait. After ten minutes standing at the empty bar I was told “oh, there is a woman sitting in the garden by herself – that might be who you are waiting for.” All very amateur and awkward.
Okay, we laughed it off and finally made it our table in the restaurant. Not in the cosy old bit, which was empty, but in the new bare ‘conservatory’ section. “It looks like a tea shop,” said my companion.
Atmosphere nil. But it was fairly full. Not bad for a Tuesday lunchtime. Our table was small and looked like a side table you’d stack cutlery on. We had paper napkins. A waitress was wandering around with two bowls asking loudly if anyone had ordered soup.
What about the food... ?
My parfait of foie gras starter was very smooth like a pate with a very tasty crust of raisins in a Madeira jelly. Nice. Presentation was a bit lazy though – four slices of toasted French bread in the saucer. No butter. No garnish of any kind. My companion’s sardines on toast were excellent. Wish I’d ordered that too.
Her main course was smoked haddock, which looked – and evidently was a bit - like a slice of toasted Belstaff jacket: a bit too tough and rubbery. The veg side dishes (all extra at £2.50 each) were fresh and delivered in little white pots drenched in good sauces or oils. The haricot beans were ace - perfectly timed, still with crunch, but the broccoli was a bit soft and spongy.
My main course: ‘spatchcock of poussin’ (young chicken with backbone removed so it can be flattened for cooking) was a disaster. It was barely cooked. The meat was pink and bloody. I had to send it back. There was a long wait during which my companion finished her meal of course. My poussin reappeared, properly cooked.
But by now I wish I’d ordered something simple they could cope with, like a steak or fish pie. The poussin was okay but fiddly work for not much meat. Especially with someone watching you who has long since finished their meal. It wasn’t particularly tasty so it was overpowered by the two really nice sausages that came with it. The turret of potato (‘pomme fondant’) on the plate seemed to have been cooked to death. I struggled to cut it.
Huge uninteresting chunks
My ‘Frankie Dettori’ tiramisu was an attempt to finish on a reliable winner - but that too was a bit sad. It was runny wet with huge uninteresting chunks swimming around in an over-strong liquid. I’d had one in a plastic pot from Aldi the night before that I preferred.
Marco was obviously not in the building that day. Staff varied from grumpy to briskly efficient. I would have expected a little bit more groveling considering they’d mucked up my main course so badly. They knocked it off the bill but didn’t really explain what had happened very well. It all felt a bit awkward again.
Amazingly, completely independent of me, someone at the next table also sent back their main course. For that to happen twice in one sitting would be very unusual at any restaurant. Since I posted this review I've heard from so many other diners at the Pear Tree that they too had sent back their food because it was inedible. Yet many of them still have been going back. There's a sense of glamour about the Marco link that seems to overcome sky-high prices and unreliable food.
On the way out of the Pear Tree I bumped into a local drinking at the bar who told me how brilliant MPW is when he's here, dishing out free drinks and chatting to customers just like a normal bloke. I shook my head and left, mystified.
The Pear Tree, Top Lane, Whitley, Wiltshire SN12 8QX
Three course lunch £16.50
Three course dinner 19.90
A la carte mains £12.50 - £19.50
Wine from £14.90 a bottle
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