Legend might link The Bell Inn, an historic coaching house on the Old North Road in the village of Stilton with a certain Dick Turpin, but lunch there was no highway robbery
The building, which has greeted thirsty and hungry travellers for hundreds of years, including the legendary highwayman who according to folklore hid from the law there, remains an imposing presence on the village street scene.
The Galleried Restaurant upstairs, which wasn’t open at lunchtime when I visited, is a magnificent olde worlde setting, packed with character and is the pick of the dining spots at the venue, offering a two course a la carte menu for £27 or three course for £33.
The bistro, which was fully booked, has low ceilings and exposed beams but is lighter and brighter with a more relaxed, contemporary feel.
And the bar is everything you imagine a country hostelry to be; rugged, exposed stone walls and paved floor, exposed beams and roaring fire, very inviting on a cold December day.
And, while all that history and heritage is reflected in the atmosphere, the food offering is much more up to date and is recognised by the coveted Michelin and Good Pub guides as well as retaining its two AA Rosettes recently under head chef Jerzy Michalak.
The honey roast pumpkin soup sounded both seasonal and ideal for the weather, but I went with a slightly more exciting sounding buttermilk fried chicken with Thai sweet chilli mayonnaise (£7).
The chicken strips were nice and crunchy with a distinctive fried taste, and the mayo quite subtle. It also came with an interesting sliced onion and cabbage mixture, making for something of a deconstructed coleslaw.
My dining partner tucked into a good sized, tasty mackerel pate, on a bed of pickled cucumber, and fennel jelly with a slice of sourdough bread to mop it all up (£7).
I followed up with a real treat: roast ham hock (£15)that was so soft and tender with a little saltiness and a mustard glaze that made the fatty top irresistible.
I just couldn’t get over how good the spiced red cabbage was - sweet and sticky, like a warm chutney.
It came with handcut chips that were the right combination of crisp and fluffy, although I would have preferred a creamy mash - and a bigger plate!
Across the table I could only admire the roasted lamb rump (what a smell), which came on a bed of sauerkraut, though it was more a ratatouille, under all that sauce. Either way, very enjoyable.
The potato gnocchi was nicely done, and soaked up the juice a treat (£18).
After last week’s outing to the excellent Fox at Folksworth, more proof if needed of what the villages around the city have to offer with excellent, friendly service.
Brad Barnes dines at The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough. www.thebellstilton.co.uk
Brad’s Rating: 9