Taking The Bull By The Horns | The Bull Hotel, Wrotham, Kent
Regular readers of our site will know just how stupidly excited we get when we find a decent local restaurant. London and its outer boroughs have so much choice that popping out for a meal is, excuse the food pun – a piece of cake. Move out beyond Zone 4 and these options begin to thin. Travel out beyond the limits of the M25 and you are mostly left with chain restaurants and takeaways. There are a few exceptions and The Bull Hotel in the Kentish village of Wrotham is one of them.
The Bull is a cosy old coaching inn and hotel, and when I say old I mean old. It first started trading under the sign of The Bull in 1385 offering rest to weary travelers along the Pilgrim’s Way. Since then, The Bull has played its part in history and is packed to its heavy beamed rafters with tall tales of characters past. I particularly like the stories about it being the headquarters of a renowned gang of smugglers as well as a favourite drinking den for Battle of Britain pilots.
Enough of the time travelling and back to the here and now because despite all its history The Bull’s owners are very forward thinking. Seeing the ever-growing London ‘low and slow’ BBQ trend, owner Martin went out and got himself a Big Green Egg and developed the Smokehouse menu that rivals most of what the capital has to offer. Throw in an ever-changing selection of craft beers, locally brewed ales and a sunny courtyard and The Bull was definitely on to a winner.
Not resting on their laurels, they decided to have a go at revamping their A La Carte menu. Maybe to emulate the critical (and commercial) success of The Sportsman in Seasalter, Whitstable. And to do this they have enlisted chef Adam Turley. Classically trained Adam began his career by working with Mark Flanagan (now personal chef to HM The Queen) before moving onto The Waterside Inn, where he spent a couple of years working under Michelin star chefs Michel and Alain Roux. Then came 10 years as head chef at Bluebells in Sunningdale, so he sure has the pedigree to take The Bull Hotel to the next level.
Decor inside hasn’t really changed, it’s still looks exactly what you’d expect for a classic country inn, loved the Inglenook fireplace – imagine just how cosy and romantic that would be with a log fire crackling away.
We usually start our meal with a cocktail but The Bull isn’t really the place to sip on a whiskey sour, not when you could work your way through their selection of craft beers. One thing that would be impossible to get through in one sitting is their wine list. At over forty pages long it’s an epic read, luckily Martin was on had to share his expertise. He explained that they used the Coravin system so that we could sample some of their finer wines by the glass (click here to find out what the Coravin system is – we didn’t know either.)
Saff settled on a very drinkable natural wine, a glass of Nero d’avola from Sicily (£7.75). My Spanish Tragolargo (£6) was, let’s just say, interesting. It had a very strong burnt butterscotch flavour that made way for a nutty aftertaste. Not a wine I could drink a lot of, nor one I could drink quickly, on the plus side it lasted for the duration of our meal.
Talking of acquired taste, the beef dripping that came with warm home-made sour dough was a touch overpowering (although my best friend’s dad would have loved it – he always had a bowl of dripping in the fridge). But the whipped butter was incredible, so light and so smokey, it was like spreading pure essence of barbecue on my bread.
This was just the start of the new evening menu, two-courses for £30 and three for £38, which also included a ‘nibble’ and a ‘refresher’. Next up was that nibble, no choice, just crispy whitebait served with cep mayonnaise (although the online menu does also give the option of pork scratchings). A nice little touch but possibly not necessary, especially as our starters arrived seconds after I popped the last little sprat in my mouth.
I’d ordered the rather simple sounding ‘Pea’ which, as the menu told me, was English pea risotto served with a decent sized portion of fresh mozzarella, nasturtium (flowers) and crumbled almond. What a pretty dish with a subtle touch of citrus to balance the creamy cheese. Saff had the slightly more interesting sounding ‘Octopus’, another well presented dish with walnut, burnt gem lettuce and a slightly overwhelming chipotle mayonnaise.
It was fairly obvious from our starters the direction that Adam was taking the new menu. The delicate A La Carte menu is like a feather tickle – pleasant and subtle whilst the big bold flavours from the Smokehouse menu is more like a smack in the face.
We wanted to test this theory with our mains and ordered beef and pork, two meats that play such an important role on the Smokehouse menu. Saff’s ‘Hereford beef’ – smoked brisket and barbecue flat-iron steak with onion, artichoke and truffle hit the spot although the brisket was extremely fatty. My head to tail ‘Pork’ – served with fermented cabbage and celeriac (roasted and puréed) was better. The tenderloin and crisp puffed crackling were great but it was the pig’s head croquet that was the star of the plate, that and the rich sauce.
Our sides of grilled tenderstem broccoli and almonds and an ample sized dish of smoked mash potato lifted our main courses. The mash in particular stood out – their food was at its best when it got the Smokehouse treatment. Well if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.
Before dessert came the Refresher of ‘Pineapple’ – a puréed pineapple and chilli soup with crème fraiche and popping candy. Fun? Oh yes. Necessary? Maybe not. Dated? Definitely!
Before we move on to desserts I just have to mention the service. Martin, as always, was professional, working the room and chatting to all his diners. The rest of the team were a little, how to best put it – Fawlty Towers.
The older waiter was swearing under his breath at the till (loud enough that we could hear) that he had to ‘sort out this f@#*ing bill first’. While the waitress was sprinting up and down and darting between the tables as if she was in some kind of restaurant themed obstacle race. To be honest this simply made us laugh but it was unprofessional and at the very least a little naive, especially as they knew we were there to review (we heard them chatting about us too).
Desserts certainly came to the rescue! My ‘PBJ’ was amazing, it almost looked too perfect as if mass-produced by robots in some hi-tech kitchen of the future. But no, I was assured that it was made from scratch in The Bull’s kitchen. A semifreddo of peanut butter mouse with a strip of strawberry jelly and covered in the glossiest chocolate that I have ever seen. Even the malted chocolate crumble and little blob of sharp fruit purée were incredible.
Saff went for the warm ‘Lardy Cake’ with custard and homemade honeycomb. The real reason she ordered this was that she adores panna cotta and her dessert came with a lavender variety. Anything flavoured with lavender can be a risk but this was perfect, the balance was just right, talk about ending the meal on a high (thank God).
Overall we enjoyed the meal although, desserts aside, we did feel that there was a little something missing. Maybe dropping the nibble and refresher and trimming the hefty £38 price tag could be a good start. Service was a little more of an issue but with good training that’s can be easily sorted too.
The new menu only launched on the 9th of September so maybe these snags where down the teething problems. Adam has created a very imaginative and visually stunning menu, possibly it just needs a little more time to bed in. In the meantime (if Martin lets us) we’ll be back for a 10-hour alder wood smoked pulled pork brioche bun and the leeks with melted comte…
Bull Lane, Wrotham, Kent TN15 7RF
Telephone: 01732 789800
Opening hours: Served Monday to Saturday from 6pm to 9pm
Book a table online
Nearest station: Borough Green & Wrotham (24 min walk or 5 minute taxi journey)
We ate as guests of The Bull Hotel, this does not affect our review in any way. We always write with complete honesty.