The Kings Arms, Great Stainton, Stockton TS21 1NA

Tel: 01740 630873


Surroundings: 8

Food quality: 9

Service: 6

Value for money: 8

I REMEMBER two things about my last visit about eight years ago to the King’s Arms, a 17th Century coaching inn at Great Stainton, a village on a hill between Darlington and Sedgefield.

I remember the lamb two-way dish, which I thought was an exceptional combination of a two-pin rack of lamb with a shepherd’s pie topped with hyperlocal Mordon blue cheese.

And I remember the nausea-inducing carpet. It was like a barcode: dense black lines of varying thickness on a purple backing that somehow shifted and swam as you looked down on them. The floor between the bar and the restaurant sloped a little unevenly, causing me to stumble on a step that wasn’t there.

If they re-carpeted, I thought, the lamb two-way would definitely be worth coming back for.

But something went wrong. The King’s fell dark. For much of the last decade it has had refitters’ skips parked outside, but two years ago it was reborn, run by Paul Bussey, a protégé of TV chef Gordon Ramsay, and his wife Ycheng.

Thankfully, the carpet has gone, and the pub has been redecorated in restrained, calm-inducing browns, heated by a beautifully warm woodburner. It wasn’t especially full when we looked in on a late November Saturday evening, although many seemed to be return customers.

They also knew from experience that nothing is hurried at the King’s Arms – one gentleman placed his order before he was even seated, just to get things moving.

Partly because of this, and partly because of the cost, we decided not to have a starter, tempting as they looked. The salmon and cod fishcake, and the chicken liver parfait were the cheapest at £7.50, locally shot pheasant with smoked bacon and pickled blackberries (which sounds fantastic) was £8.50 and, the most expensive, was seared scallops for £12.

Main courses could also be also expensive. They started at £11.50 for Whitby scampi and chips, or £14.50 for pie of the day, which are pub staples, and they rose for the most interesting to £27.50 for the Bishop Middleham Lamb Rump.

The Northern Echo: The Bishop Middleham Lamb The Bishop Middleham Lamb

They arrived more than an hour after we had sat down, although we were sustained with a little sourdough bread and butter in the wait.

They were both worth waiting for and paying for.

Grandma went for the top of the range lamb, served with a little rosemary jus. Grandma is a lamb aficionado, having been eating it for the best part of a century. It was tasty and juicy and she declared it “one of the best pieces of lamb I’ve ever had” – although we later learned there was some consternation about it in the kitchen. They like to serve it pink, whereas she’d ordered it medium, and there was concern that it might have dried out a little. There need not have been any worries.

Petra, my wife, had the pan fried sea bass with wilted spinach, lobster ravioli and bisque (£18.50). The fish itself was perfect, with a nice crispy skin, although she felt the pasta on the ravioli could have done with a minute or so longer.

Theo, our son, had the beer battered fish and chips (£11.50) which he demolished, and Genevieve, our daughter, had the 35 Day Aged Sirloin Steak (£26) with onion rings, a mushroom and tomato, a poivre sauce and a green salad enlivened with a little blue cheese. She’d asked for medium to well done, which is exactly how it came, and she oozed with delight over it.

The Northern Echo: The steak with a poivre sauceThe steak with a poivre sauce

I had the Tasting of Yorkshire Pig (£24) – boiled fillet wrapped in pancetta, confit of belly and braised cheek each topped with a spiral of crackling. It was pork at least four ways, and it blew the lamb two ways from eight years ago out of the water.

The Northern Echo: The Tasting of Yorkshire Pig at the King's Arms, Great Stainton – dish of the yearThe Tasting of Yorkshire Pig at the King's Arms, Great Stainton – dish of the year

The types of meat each had their own characteristic. The boiled fillet was rather sausagey with a hammy touch from the pancetta it was wrapped in, but the star of the show was the layers of belly which had the most magnificent full-on porky flavour. Pork can be such a run-of-the-mill meat, but this was powerfully memorable.

Each piece of meat was topped with a spiral of crackling. Seeing crackling on the menu almost prevented me from ordering the dish, because I once lost a tooth to some stubborn crackling at a garden centre Sunday roast. This, though, was cracking crackling. The juices from the meat had softened it but it still had a slight crunch. It had a big pig taste but then it seemed to be shot through with a touch of unexpected heat. I was amazed that one spiral sliver could do so much in the mouth.

The plate also contained tastes of apple, mustard and peanut to make this an excellent all-round tour of the possibilities of the Yorkshire pig. I haven’t had a better, more tasty meal this year.

Not perfect, though. The jus was served in a little measuring jug which showed there was just 30ml of it. I require more than just a thimble of gravy.

And there was no potato. A few chips would not have gone amiss, although I was able to steal a couple from Genevieve’s steak.

The desserts, which arrived after more than half-an-hour, did not take all of us to such heights. They start at £6.50 for a very good and fruity sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce, which was usually served with vanilla ice cream but Genevieve decided to smother it in custard.

The table had two pieces of plum Bakewell tart, for the same price, and both, it was agreed, were lined with some tough pastry.

The Northern Echo: The plum bakewell tart with raspberry ripple ice creamThe plum bakewell tart with raspberry ripple ice cream

My hot chocolate fondant at £8 was the most expensive on the dessert menu and was faultless: a hot sponge with a lava flow of gooey chocolate sauce on the inside served with an excellent salted caramel ice cream – a perfect combination.

The Northern Echo: Chocolate fondant with salted caramel ice creamChocolate fondant with salted caramel ice cream

The meal was not cheap, and the service was slow, but good things come to those who wait, and this was a meal that will live long in the memory.