Olivia travels to Burnley to find out if a Michelin-starred gastropub is really a pub at all
What makes a pub, a pub? The White Swan certainly gives the impression of being a pub. There’s a polished wooden bar with Timothy Taylor on cask, menus on chalkboards, cosy fireplaces. And it’s called ‘The White Swan’, for God’s sake. If it looks like a pub and sounds like a pub…
The chicken liver parfait tartlet comes in pastry so thin it almost makes me cross
Still, I’m nervous. The website instructs me not to turn up early, because ‘we do not have a holding area for pre-dinner drinks’, which doesn’t feel terribly pubby. I’ve been down this road before. All too often, ‘gastropub’ is shorthand for ‘we want to charge restaurant prices for puny portions of food and mediocre service’.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. Head chef Tom Parker cut his teeth at Nigel Haworth’s acclaimed Northcote restaurant, and worked under Great British Menu regular Lisa Goodwin-Allen. He and his team have earned The White Swan a Michelin Star and 2 AA rosettes; it was seventh on this year’s Top 50 Gastropubs list, above Tom Kerridge’s Hand and Flowers.
It’s no surprise, then, that The White Swan oozes confidence. There’s one set menu: a three-course lunch for £55 Tues–Fri or £65 at the weekend, and a five-course dinner for £80. There are no choices within that menu, even though it contains things like roe deer and tongue, which many are fussy about. ‘The only choice we need from you is whether you’d like the cheeseboard’ we are told as we sit down. No decisions to make, no risk of food envy. I’m quite happy to hand my day over to these people who clearly know what they’re doing.
It starts well. There are two extra-menu treats as we sit down, and both are delicious. The chicken liver parfait tartlet with a hazelnut and orange crumb comes in pastry so thin it almost makes me cross: how did they do it? Then, a cup of hare consommé (‘Waiter, there’s a hare in my soup!’), with pickled veg, shimeji mushrooms, and blackcurrant gel. It sounds complicated, but to smell it – deep, meaty, veg-heavy broth; a bold crack of black pepper – you’d think they’d bottled Lancashire hotpot.
Homemade bread comes with two butters, the first salty and appealingly funky, the second – dabbed with emerald lovage oil – clean and bright, with a lactic tang. But the surprise hit is a clever take on a Lancashire favourite: a hummus made with black peas, with an artful whack of chilli and citrus.
Of course, this is all just preamble. Our starter is a fat, plumped up throw cushion of a salmon raviolo, sitting proudly amidst shellfish foam, with various zingy bits – lemon gel, tarragon oil, fresh tarragon – and Ossetra caviar perched primly on top. I know what you’re thinking. More gels, more oils! But these aren’t just costume jewellery for your plate. The lemon gel is hidden beneath the foam: you only know it’s there when you scrape your spoon along the bottom, and your whole palate lights up.
“A little venison for you now,’ we’re told as the main course arrives. It’s a masterclass in understatement. We’re presented with an expertly cooked loin, pink and tender, morel-stuffed leg meat, slow-cooked calf’s tongue, mushroom cream, Jerusalem artichoke purée, and one gleaming, glorious preserved damson.
Again, nothing is there for show: the purées make silk seem crude; the sauce is finger-swipingly good. It’s telling that the three of us around the table each have a different favourite element. Mine, for the record, is the tongue, which is quiveringly soft, with an incredible savoury punch.
And the chocolate soufflé, my God. I dive into mine so quickly it doesn’t have time to collapse, but I watch another table chat to their waiter and ask questions while theirs sit there, quietly defying gravity. It comes with a chocolate and peanut crumb on top, a single scoop of peanut butter ice cream zig-zagged with miso caramel, and a jug full of hot chocolate sauce. It could easily be overbearing, but it wears its fancy Valrhona chocolate so lightly, I could eat it twice.
The knowledgeable and enthusiastic Gareth guides us through a tray heaving with cheeses, all sourced from The Courtyard Dairy in Austwick. We choose a fantastic Cote Hill Blue, which is bitter, minerally, and oozy, all in just the right way; a wedge of Sparkenhoe, the only unpasteurised red Leicester; Ingot, a fresh, zippy goats cheese from the Holker estate in Cartmel, and a vivid, pungent rind-washed Evenlode from Gloucestershire.
It’s a thrilling meal: witty, thoughtful, technically excellent, and far less pretentious than I feared. This lack of pretension is deftly aided by warm and unaffected service, led by Laura and Gareth Ostrick, who bought and turned the White Swan into the place it is today. 'People call up and ask about the dress code, but you can turn up in your pyjamas if you want,’ Laura tells us.
I’m here for a pub that puts hare on its only dinner menu; even more so when they use the spare bits to make our delicious consommé. The thing is, with a place like The White Swan, you can pick apart the constituent parts, interrogate how each of the dish’s elements – the venison, the artichoke, the damson – work individually and alongside one another, but actually the experience makes all of this analysis feel silly.
This is food that surprises without being gimmicky, that is greater than the sum of its parts, that makes you leave with a smile on your face. Is The White Swan really a pub? When it’s this good, I simply don’t care.
White Swan at Fence 300 Wheatley Ln Rd, Fence, Burnley BB12 9QA
Follow Olivia Potts on Twitter @_Poots_ or on Instagram @ahalfbakedidea
About the writer
Olivia won the Fortnum and Mason Debut Food Book of the Year in 2020, as well as Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the year. She also writes Spectator Life's Vintage Chef column for The Spectator magazine. She has two books in print, A Half Baked Idea and Butter: A Celebration.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
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.
Hare consomme 9 Tartlet 8 Bread and butter 8 Salmon ravioli 9 Roe deer 10 Soufflé 9 Cheese board 8
Warm, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, but all with a light touch
Slightly stark lighting at lunchtime, but buzzy, fun, and relaxed