Straddling the balance between traditional appeal and contemporary food is a tall order for any country pub.
The Packhorse Inn at Little Longstone near Bakewell is one of those pubs that comes pretty close to meeting all expectations from a Sunday lunch in the Peak District.
Roaring fire? Check.
Traditional beamed pub and rustic decor dating back centuries? Check.
Real ale behind the bar, real people drinking it, and a mixture of classic dishes with some creative choices on the menu?
Check, check and check. We knew it wasn’t your bog standard ‘sausage and mash’ offering when it came to the starters - with all of our table of four vying for the same dish.
KFP - or Kentucky Fried Pheasant - was intriguing to say the least...
“We’ve been doing that dish for years”, said landlord David Cooper.
“It always sells really well.
“We have a lot of game delivered to us so we put it to good use as well as we can, that’s always been one of our priorities.”
It’s good to have a nod to the country in a country pub - some chefs do still shy away from game.
But head chef Ben Mizon clearly isn’t fazed by it.
There was venison too and plenty of interesting cuts of meat and fish to dither between. More of which later.
The Packhorse, located just a few minutes from the famous Monsal Head and accompanying trail, does pack them in - with just ten tables seating a maximum of 34 people at any one time.
David says they have to turn tables round quickly.
Its reputation for food is well established, and was cemented by a Guardian review some years back.
Now you have to book even during the week to get a table.
David added: “We were busy before that to be honest but that did provide us with a busy week and it has been going in the right direction.
“We get a lot of walkers, a lot of tourists and day trippers because we are located in the area of Sheffield, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham and Chesterfield.
“We change our menu every month, about six of the mains and all the starters to keep it fresh and interesting.
“We use local produce where we can - it always has been about the food and traditional classics, things like steak and kidney pudding.”
Our table of four plus baby ended up with a window seat by chance, after moving to accommodate a larger group.
You can imagine it being rather like a game of musical chairs at peak times.
Guests have to order at the bar in the room next door and then the food is brought to your table - the menu is written out on chalkboards rather than on individual menus, which must be a pain when it comes to changing the dishes on offer.
After a brief tussle, I won the right to order the mysterious KFP (£6).
It did indeed look like something Colonel Sanders would have cooked up. I’d expected a leg of pheasant in a batter, but instead came small crispy, golden strips of the meat.
The crunchy batter was packed with herbs and spices, and inside was moist, with the rich meaty flavour that comes only from game.
There was a side pot of garlic mayonnaise to dip it in too, which had plenty of punch.
The rest of our table tried the clam chowder - which was packed with plenty of seafood in a creamy broth - and the haggis and black pudding - both also £6.
I’m not usually a fan of either haggis or black pudding, but they were both superb quality and tasted fantastic.
A topping of a poached egg was also a nice touch, although lettuce and cucumber on the side seemed a bit random.
I’d have liked to have tried the smoked haddock rarebit starter too.
For mains, the focus is very much on hearty, comforting dishes, but with a contemporary approach.
My braised beef cheek (£14) was a masterpiece.
A simply huge circle of meat was the crowning glory, and it slid on to the fork like a dream.
The meat was juicy without that overstewed taste you can sometimes get from slow cooked meats.
There was a sticky gravy too, and underneath it all, root vegetables and mash. I didn’t really detect the celeriac in the potatoes, however.
His venison burger was a feast, and came topped with a slice of thick chorizo, redcurrant jam and a mountain of decent chips on the side.
Our friends devoured an ‘excellent’ pork belly (£14), which is so easy to get wrong, and a fish pie, which involved fishing through too much potato to reel in the main attraction hidden underneath.
There was a great selection of desserts to choose from on the chalkboards - eight in total.
My Bakewell pudding (£6) was all crispy , light pastry with a gooey inside, set off nicely with raspberry ice cream.
The ‘chocolate nemesis’ turned out to be just chocolate cake - an incredibly rich and decadent one at that.
For three courses for two people , a bottle of very decent red wine and soft drinks, we paid £76.
n Packhorse Inn, Main Street, Little Longstone
Tel: 01629 640471