There was a time, maybe fifteen years ago, that the small East Lothian village of Pencaitland was graced by two village pubs. Two beating hearts, I suppose, for one small settlement.
Not even Pencaitland is immune from the modern decline in rural village life though, and before long one of the two pubs closed down, the property subsequently sold and converted into flats. Only The Winton Arms remained, left to eke out its tenuous existence. Eventually, in 2019, it too was sold. Happily, its fate was less ignominious. The buyers were Caledonian Heritable, well known in the region for their tenure of The Dome in Edinburgh, a much-lauded city-centre cocktail bar and restaurant. Their efforts to revitalise their new acquisition were on a suitably ambitious scale, as in a construction project which seems to have rumbled on through the entirety of the Covid-19 pandemic the pub was augmented with a large extension which houses a new bar, dining room and state-of-the-art kitchens.
The Winton finally opened its doors in August 2022. I thought I should check it out.
First impressions count and the renovation and extension at The Winton successfully blends the old and the new. The stone walls of the old pub have been retained, graced only with a new entrance porch, clad in timber, which matches the timber facing on the extension at the rear. Inside the dining room is bright and airy, but also busy (impressive for a Wednesday evening, although its recent opening will no doubt have boosted trade) and a touch noisy, the chatter bouncing off the bare stone and freshly plastered walls.
The Winton offers a gastropub dining experience which, considering the kitchens have been running for days rather than weeks or months, was very well executed. At our table for three we eschewed the starters and instead began with some small bites; a bowl of crispy whitebait served with a Marie Rose sauce could not be faulted; I lost count of how many I ate (surely a good sign) and the dipping sauce naturally worked well with the crispy and delicately spiced fish. The Hornig’s haggis bon bons with a mustard mayonnaise were also exactly as they should be, the haggis balls coated in a light and crispy breadcrumb coating, the mustard mayonnaise adding a gentle kick.
With one eye on the wine list I switched into safe mode and opted for a classic dish of fish and chips. The former was a day-boat Peterhead haddock, which came coated in a fabulously light and crispy batter which even the fish itself would have been happy with. On the side, the chips came triple cooked, a style which I find many chefs aspire to yes it is rarely done well, the result either careless burning or over-cautious undercooking of monolithic wedges of potato. Neither was the case here, as these chips were clearly done well, crisped but not over-cooked. Alongside, a pea purée was good enough, but the tartare sauce was high quality.
So much for this expertly executed gastropub classic, but the kitchen had more opportunity to show off with one of our other selections. Playfully listed on the menu as cauliflower cheese, this was in truth a Jim Howie cauliflower steak served with a rarebit crust, a black truffle mash, smoked almond granola, crispy kale and parsley oil. Calling all vegetarians: book a table at The Winton, this is a dish you do not want to miss, especially that truffle mash which was not short on truffly flavour.
The drinks menu at The Winton is long, but impassioned wine drinkers will find only a very small selection of bottles among the beers, cocktails and coffees. A dozen bins each in white and red, and a handful of rosé and sparkling selections. Most of them seem to come from the Bibendum on-trade list, and there are one or two interesting options; I plumped for the 2021 Craggy Range Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, from under screwcap, which was a classically-styled thiol-rich New Zealand Sauvignon, with plenty of flavour and texture, but modest acidity, which had the good grace to work well with our dishes.
The team at The Winton work well together, and service was friendly and attentive. Clearly they are still finding their feet, with a few glitches along the way, such as being offered another diner’s wine, or the opportunity to settle our bill despite having only reached the interregnum between starters and our main course. These sort of minor slip-ups will cease once the team remembers which is table 7 and which is table 8. And to be honest, considering the restaurant has been open barely a few days I was hugely impressed by the standard and speed of service.
We finished with an array of puddings, all clearly made in house, and all of good quality. Of the three, the technically most challenging was surely the raspberry jam soufflé, which was perfectly cooked. A bitter chocolate parfait and a sticky toffee pudding also ticked all the boxes.
I crossed the threshold of The Winton expecting an ordinary dining experience but came away impressed by the quality of the cooking and the level of service provided by a newly formed team. I can work with the brevity of the carte des vins, even though it doesn’t feature a single wine from the Loire Valley (shocking, I know; not even a Muscadet). I am quite certain I will be back here before too long.
Price: The whitebait and haggis snacks were £5 and £4 respectively, the cauliflower cheese £13, the fish and chips £16, the Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc £36, the puddings £7 each. All this, plus a couple of beers from the bar, meant the bill for our dinner for three came to a very reasonable £119. (26/8/22)