Pride of the Peacock

The Peacock at Rowsley
The Peacock at Rowsley

IF IT sounds too good to be true, then it probably is, they say. But we’ve discovered a bargain that’s quite genuine and is there for the taking, six days a week…

The Peacock at Rowsley is renowned for its classy surroundings, its top notch food and its celebrity customers – recent visitors have included film stars Dame Judi Dench, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley.

With credentials like that, it must cost a pretty penny to eat there, you might think. And you’d be right if you’re planning a slap-up dinner.

But if you’re prepared to swap your evening meal for a three-course lunch, you can wallow in the lavish comforts, impeccable service and award-winning food of the Peacock for an unbelievable £14.95.

The Lighter Appetite offer is the brainchild of managers Jenni and Ian MacKenzie, who introduced it earlier this year: comprising a starter and dessert with half-size main course.

“It started as an offer for elderly people, but a lot of other clients couldn’t get to pudding because they were too full up. So we decided to extend it to everybody,” says Jenni.

Lighter Appetite is something of a misnomer. There’s nothing wrong with mine, but I was completely stuffed by the time we’d worked our way through three courses with all the trimmings – though I have to confess it was refreshing to have room for sticky toffee pudding.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Peacock, an elegant manor house dating back to 1652, has been an inn for 200 years. At one time taken over by a hotel chain, it is now safely back in the hands of Lord Edward Manners of nearby Haddon Hall, and has been refurbished and styled by award-winning designer India Mahdavi.

It’s the kind of place where you’re greeted by name, treated as royalty and pampered like a movie star.

Service is exceptional. Staff not only pander to your every whim, but anticipate your needs – with a friendly humour that’s a world away from some stuffier establishments.

We’re shown into the atmospheric bar, all dark wood and exposed stone, where a sommelier brings our drinks: a glass of house red for him, freshly-squeezed lime and soda for me. (There’s an impressive choice of wines, from £16.95 a bottle or £4.30 per glass, as well as cocktails, spirits and ales.)

Jenni talks us through the menu – not a limited choice as we’d expected, but the run of the lunch selection, with only a couple of options reserved for guests paying full price.

Then we’re led into the dining room, a cosy affair with aubergine walls, tartan carpet and elegant antique ‘mouseman’ furniture. It’s quiet, no background muzak here, but there’s a convivial hum of conversation.

Our white-gloved waiter brings hunks of fresh bread to whet our appetite and almost immediately the starters arrive.

Head chef Dan Smith has a pedigree that includes working with Tom Aikens in London and has recently been awarded a third AA rosette – the only restaurant in the area with the accolade.

There’s no mistaking the quality of his cooking. Chicken liver parfait is, indeed, parfait: rich and silky smooth, wrapped in butter, with puffy toast and a deliciously tangy chutney of pear, ginger and saffron.

My tomato and goat’s curd tart is even better: a disc of flaky pastry topped with a delicious mélange of sweet cherry tomatoes and tangy curd infused with just a hint of thyme.

It’s a heavenly combination and of course it’s the skill in combining flavours and textures that marks out a top chef.

The menu features five main courses plus a special, ranging from haddock and chips to tagliatelle.

Stuffed and braised lamb breast is beautifully tender with a Mediterranean twist: a cornucopia of aubergine, olives, tomatoes, courgettes, fennel and peppers, fragrant with oregano. It comes on a nest of crushed new potatoes and is more than adequate for a supposed half-portion.

My companion tucks into the special, a classic boeuf bourguignon, with chunks of steak, mushrooms, bacon and onions cooked in a rich red wine sauce and served on a bed of mash.

This is generally the point where I bow out gracefully, content to admit defeat in spite of the mouthwatering array of desserts on offer.

But I have no such problem today; that smaller main course means there’s no need to suppress my sweet tooth.

It’s a tough choice, but in the end there’s no decision to be made: for once I’m determined to have the sticky toffee pudding.

And what a winner! My companion, enviously, wonders if they’re trying to make up for a half-portion dinner with a double-size pudding. It’s the perfect marriage of stodge and sweetness, swimming in a pool of buttery toffee sauce, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Divine!

Fortunately the pear and ginger crumble is just as good – the real deal, complete with proper crunchy topping and a little jug of custard.

Fresh filter coffee and petit fours are extra (£4.25), but we don’t want the dream to end so we pay up happily and settle in the comfy lounge to eke out every last second of this hedonistic interlude.

lVerdict: Perfect for a special occasion, but unmissable for a bargain lunch that’s truly out of this world.

lOpen: Daily; lighter lunch available Mon - Sat; Sun lunch from £20.50

lThe Peacock, Bakewell Road, Rowsley (01629) 733 518 www.thepeacock