There’s a tightrope that restaurants walk when they offer Sunday lunch.
How do they stand out from the crowd in such a crowded and competitive market?
There is, of course, the pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap approach of joints that are happy to serve mediocre meat and indifferently cooked veg in the hope of attracting punters who can’t be arsed to cook at home.
That, though, is a route to the bottom, with places forever seeking to undercut the prices charged by their rivals.
Far better is to try to stand out by offering quality produce cooked well and, in the case of the adorable Bluebell in Henley-in-Arden, sold at a very fair price.
I’d eaten at the pub twice at night and been wowed by the imaginative and well-crafted food prepared by a kitchen led by chef-patron Joe Adams, classically-trained and with an impressive CV.
This, however, was my first visit for Sunday lunch. It won’t be my last.
For cooking of this quality, the prices are bordering on the barmy – £22 for two courses, £26 for three.
But, bugger me, that wasn’t what impressed me so.
The dishes themselves were beautiful things – great produce treated with skill, respect and understanding.
Take, for instance, a starter of creamy, delicate goats cheese served with sourdough crumbs, beetroot prepared various ways, seeds, candied walnuts and a shavings of back truffles.
This was as pretty a dish as I’ve seen in a long time, well-balanced and buzzing with sweet, punchy, earthy and savoury flavours and cleverly contrasting textures.
Opposite my wife fell respectfully silent over a precisely mi-cuit piece of salmon with avocado, caviar, a mild horseradish cream and puffed rice.
Again, this was an attractive bowl of food with great variety of flavour and texture.
Lynn, who appeared to be having a hungry weekend, chose a main course from the traditional roasts that are on offer.
The slow-cooked belly of Jimmy Butlers pork that she ate was a tender, succulent and generous chunk of pig, with perfect crackling.
The carrot puree that lay alongside had an astonishing depth of flavour.
Roasts spuds were crisp and fluffy, the gravy was good, likewise the apple sauce.
I, however, went down a more restrained path and ordered a gorgeous chunk of properly flaky hake that came with a baked purple potato, a flavoursome but light shellfish cream, salty sea asparagus and a light-textured fish cake with a refreshing whack of tarragon.
This, like previous plates and bowls, was easy on the eye and great on the palate.
It was good to see such a classy fish option on a Sunday lunch menu.
Its lightness meant I felt no guilt as I progressed to a generous serving of spotted dick with a rich toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Seldom can so many calories have disappeared down a man’s gullet in such a short space of time.
The rhubarb cheesecake with white chocolate crumbs ordered by my wife was eaten with equal enthusiasm by she who would later reflect in apparent bewilderment that she felt rather full.
By now, the place was buzzing and busy.
Clearly, this is a place that’s found a way to stand out in a challenging market.
Even for a townie like me, reluctant to venture into even countryside as tame as that of Warwickshire, this is a place well worth the schlep.
Need to know
Sunday lunch is £22 for two courses, £26 for three.
Check out, too, the a la carte and weekday lunch menus.
There are veggie options.
Dogs are welcome.
The pub has a car park.
93 High St, Henley-in-Arden B95 5AT. 01564 793049.