Ruth Allan tucks into pan-fried ray nobs and brain-looking dumplings in this quirky country pub

Arriving at The Cartford Inn after dark, I can just about make out one of the UK’s last remaining toll bridges at the end of lane. It feels old and spooky in this corner of the world - and, if it wasn’t for the sticky accolades from Michelin and Sawdays covering the door, the pub probably looks much the same as it has for the last 400 years. 

Not sure I can finish writing this as I’m already in scampi salt heaven

Cosy booths, open fires and a bar, serving draught beer from Hawkshead, Moorhouse and Lancaster breweries, dominate the main room. Yet The Cartford is bigger than it looks. The current owners have renovated over the last ten years or so, adding boutique bedrooms, kitchens and an upmarket dining room and outdoor patio towards the back of the building, with views of the River Wyre. It’s won them plenty of praise and fans that include national food critics. 

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The interior is, er, eclectic

The menu is the same throughout  – and cooking is brilliantly adventurous, in a reassuring way. Crispy garlic snails with cashew nut puree, for example, or cod tongue scampi with scampi salt (not sure I can finish writing this as I’ve already gone to heaven thinking about scampi salt). Other starters include sticky smoked Jacobs ladder, local cheddar and thyme muffins with warm quince compote and pan-fried ray nobs (skate cheeks). It’s quite the thrill. 

Anyhow. After much bickering, we take a booth by the fire and settle on Jerusalem artichoke soufflé (£8.95) and a Lancashire game terrine (£8.50) with mulled lingonberries and a slice of onion brioche. The latter is a little dry, yet well flavoured and I like the tart berries. My Swedish friend is underwhelmed. Apparently lingonberries are as ubiquitous as milk in Stockholm. 

The soufflé’s a star, though. There’s something about this combo - rich, Jerusalem artichoke flavour (I’m a convert), and dense, Nutella-ish custard, described on the menu as ‘truffle veloute’ - that envelopes and elevates. It’s extraordinary. 

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Giant cracker with dips
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Jerusalem artichoke souffle

Mains continue to pillage the region’s finest. Rare, local venison (£18.50) comes with a Garstang Blue potato rosti (the cheese is made by Dewlay, a few miles up the road) and piccolo parsnips, as cute as they sound. There are roasted pears and a giant, herby, brain-style dumpling too. I have Goosnargh duck breast (£17.50) with star anise carrot puree and quince jus. We don’t try the glazed bacon knuckle or anything from the ‘premediated gluttony’ menu which includes seafood from nearby Fleetwood and a massively reasonable cote de boeuf at £55. 

I don’t love the giant cracker with dips (£6.50). That said, it’s hard to think of a better ice breaker than snapping a body-length biscuit in half and dunking it into homemade hummus. The venison and duck could be missing a tiny spark too - a hint of something acidic, perhaps - but I’m splitting hairs here, and the experience works to dessert and beyond. 

Banana savarin with rum ice cream comes with an intensely banana-flavoured consommé; a feat that anyone who’s ever cooked a banana will realise is almost impossible to pull off. Raspberry and dark chocolate tart (both £7.95) is smooth and rich, served with a little bauble of rose Chantilly cream. The sprinkling of dried raspberry ‘bits’ on top is so elegantly festive that it’s changed my mind about what I’m making for Christmas dinner.

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Venison with Garstang Blue potato rosti
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Goosnargh duck breast

Granted, as well as being historic, there are quirky touches at The Cartford Inn that won’t be to everyone’s taste. The ‘sexy clown’ painting behind my head is one, as is a penchant for giant mushroom murals. The artwork is definitely out there but, somehow, it just adds to the welcoming vibe. 

Sipping a red Bandol (£38, supplied by local wine merchants, D. Byrne), surrounded by unusual paintings and excellent staff, I come to the realisation that The Cartford Inn is my new favourite place. Somewhere that puts pleasure, comfort and enjoyment over pretension and, for once, I feel really at home. 

The Cartford Inn, Cartford Lane, Little Eccleston, Nr. Poulton Le Fylde, Preston, PR3 0YP. Tel: 01995 670166

Follow Ruth Allan on Twitter @ruthallan

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Banana savarin with rum ice cream
Cartford Inn Preston

The scores:

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.

  • Food 7.5/10

    crackers 6, soufflé 10, terrine 6, venison 7.5, duck 7.5, savarin 8, tart 9

  • Service 5/5

    Puts pleasure, comfort and enjoyment over pretension

  • Ambience 4/5

    Focus on the food and not so much on the eclectic artwork