THERE are three ways a food review comes about: the first is when you visit the pub or restaurant unannounced and make surreptitious notes underthe table.
The second is by arrangement after you have called to suggest a sampling of what they have to offer, and then turn up with a photographer in tow.
And the third and the most rare is when they call you.
So it was opportune that while sitting in the office the other week pondering ways to reintroduce a proper, credible and useful restaurant and pub review to the Gazette, my phone should ring and a voice on the other end said: We are a new pub in Hillingdon. Would you like to come and do a review?
A week later I turned up at The Brushwood Inn, pen poised and suitably hungry.
But that is jumping ahead a bit. The caller had said she worked for a new pub in Hillingdon.
I like to think my knowledge of pubs in the Uxbridge area is pretty good but there were no new places I could think of. The trend instead seemed to be closure and redevelopment as flats.
We used to be The Turks Head, in Harlington Road, she said, and the penny dropped.
The poor old Turk's Head had been heading south for a while, looking more and more distressed and run down. Admittedly I had not been past in some time,but I would not have been surprised to have seen a boarded-up building and a for sale sign on my next trip down Harlington Road.
Step forward Enterprise Inns, the pubco that gives its tenants a lot of scope to develop the business itself. Step forward also Richard Williams, owner of The Horse and Chains in Bushey, Herts, who with his business partners was looking for another opportunity in this part of London.
The swiftly renamed Brushwood Inn (a nod to Hayes and its historic name, Brushwood,apparently) started trading in November, after a makeover if not yeta total refurbishment.
Chef Gary Symonds has worked with Richard for a while, and oversees the menu at both pubs. For now he is focusing on Harlington Road while it gets established.
At 7pm on aThursday the place was quiet, but this is a pub in turnaround so Iwasnt surprised or alarmed by that.
I got a mineralwater and headed for the spacious dining area to one side of the bar.Something the Brushwood is blessed with is space aplenty, so dinersand drinkers can co-exist without feeling crowded. Round the otherside theres a roomy lounge area with sofas.
Richard had runthrough the menu with me at the bar and explained the ethos: agrowing list of freshly prepared, home cooked dishes as the pubfinds its feet and people find the pub.
A menu that change soften, with the occasional quirky dish to complement staples such as homemade burgers prepared daily, rather than batched up and frozen, a curry of the week, pies made on the premises and favourites such as fish and chips.
Eventually, Richard and Gary want to offer smaller bar meals, set meals at a fixed price and light bites. Once a clientele is established, the suggestion seemed to be that the sky really was the limit.
We want people to drop in on the nights when they cant be bothered to cook as well as using us for a special occasion, was how Richard summed it up.
Phone ahead lunches are already on offer for those with an hour to get out of the office and back, and the proximity to Stockley Park and Uxbridge with its hordes of office workers was key to the choice of location.
For now, the reality is a robust and interesting menu, if not yet gastro,with realistic prices for both food and wine (Enterprise allows its tenants leeway on wine, cider and bottled beer sourcing), the building of a regular clientele and an anythings possible outlook.
In a climate of decline and closure, that in itself is a breath of fresh air.
I was offered smallportions of a few things to try as my starter, and went for thewhitebait with lemon mayonnaise, and duck spring rolls with plumdipping sauce.
The whitebait werejuicy and with a good tang of fish without being overly fishy oroverfried. Some places serve them so battered they are like chips.
The mayonnaise wasnot fresh, with lemon added. Discussing this afterwards with Richard,he told me how fresh mayonnaise cannot be kept and must be made toorder, achievable with large numbers of covers and a concomitantlygeared up kitchen but not an option for now.
I began to see hisproblem: the Catch 22 of building a great menu that can only workwhen the place is buzzing, but is nonetheless required to get theplace buzzing in the first place.
Same for the springrolls. He would love to make them by hand but for now it is not anoption, so they were tasty but a bit bland.
I had picked mymain course carefully to test Garys mettle: home-made pie of theweek.
That means properpastry and a good filling, in my book, and I wasnt disappointed.This was a chicken pie with large pieces of tender white meat in acreamy sauce with plenty of fresh rosemary, giving it a bitter edgeto offset the creaminess.
The pastry waslight and puffy, perhaps a little thin for my liking, which meant itwas gone in a second and I effectively ended up with a very goodcasserole, but beautifully crisp while it lasted.
Who knows, piesmight become a Brushwood signature everyone needs a uniqueselling point.
The accompanyingseasonal vegetables were spot on: kale, peas, carrots, all cooked toperfection, al dente and bright, with creamy mash.
Veg can be such anafterthought and a letdown in restaurants. As an allotment grower, Iwant it to taste as good as mine. This did.
I had asked foronion rings too, not that I needed them but again in the hope thatthey were home-made. Unfortunately not, but a simple enough fix forthe chefs when time allows. Good and onion-ey, though.
Struggling for roomby now, I took a breather and chatted to Richard about hisplans. We talked piped music, live music, salt cellars, wine and carparking! Thats the mixed bag and to do list that give newpub owners sleepless nights.
Then it was on todessert for me, and again, Id hoped to test Gary by ordering thecrumble.
Crumble topping ishighly subjective the only thing everyone agrees on is when it ispoor: clumpy, soggy, chewing gum.
I'm pleased to sayGarys rhubarb and apple crumble with vanilla ice-cream was superb.
Rhubarb (the mostmisunderstood and maligned of produce) is a brave choice. So easy toget it wrong and lots of folk simply dont like it, but this wasjust right, with a tiny bit of bite, slight acidity and complementedby small chunks of apple.
The cold of theice-cream and the heat of the crumble are a tried and trustedtechnique but it is easy to make the whole thing too sweet.
Gary had spared thesugar under his breadcrumb crumble, and the whole thing reallyworked. I loved it.
Crumbles are to bea Brushwood dessert menu feature. Good idea, I reckon.
While it isheartwarming to see a pub get a new lease of life rather thandisappear under a new housing development, as so many in our boroughhave done, the team at The Brushwood Inn have their work cut out tore-establish a tricky, main road location in times of desperateeconomic constriction.
Even in a good yearthat might be hard: this isnt going to be a good year.
But the basics arethere good cooking, a knowledge of what works in this area(sensibly priced main dishes, so families can come for a treat andbusiness folk can add it to their lunch options), a good wine listwith no silly prices and the chance to be unique or at leastsuitably different from the competition, so that people make theeffort to dine here.
Couple that with aset of regulars round the bar and you have the makings of a pubthats on the way back.
Said pub mightdeserve seven out of 10 if it had got the basics right, with room forthree more points for improving atmosphere, service and its food anddrink.
But I think TheBrushwood Inn went a but further than just the basics and has hit theground more than running, so for now, I give it 7.5.
I really hope it isstill there a year from now for a fresh review. Meanwhile, over toyou.
Food isavailable Monday to Thursday, noon-3pm and 6-9pm; Friday andSaturday, noon-3pm, 6-10pm; Sunday, noon-9pm.