Curiosity is a malleable concept; it can excite, it can disappoint, and it has a tendency to kill unwitting felines. In this case, our personal long-awaited return to The Captain’s Wife was one that resulted in a combination of the first two, with no death as far as we’re aware. It was a re-visit of a place that evokes memories of fish fingers, vast amounts of that cheap vinegary ketchup and legging it around what used to be a Brewers Fayre ‘Charlie Chalk’ play area of inevitable bruises and tears.
How times change. What used to be the frantic children’s hell hole is now branded as a ‘Vintage Inn’ with a sophisticated, laid-up restaurant area, while the remaining sections of the deceivingly vast pub are reserved for a relaxed, ‘help yourself’ environment, so it’s up to you whether you choose to receive table service or not.
Although we visited on a Monday, and a pretty miserable one at that as we could hardly see Sully Island through the Bristol Channel’s mist, The Captain’s Wife (who we didn’t see, not even once) lacked a little bit of soul. Being welcomed at the door would’ve made the difference, instead, we felt a little like we were intruding. Not that we felt unwelcome, yet we didn’t feel ‘invited’ either.
The interior is fascinating, however, with exposed beams and brickwork showing its age, as well as two log fires that weren’t lit on this occasion, and bumpy, uneven, Health & Safety-terrorising floors for your rustic pleasure. This isn’t a consciously constructed design, it really is an old building, once the home of fishermen, with all the little nooks and crannies that you’d expect to find in an old house, including protrusions high up in the walls where floor beams used to occupy. And it’s dark in there, really dark. Thomas Edison would feel a little short-changed if he dropped by for a pint, ‘I invented the light bulb for this exact reason!’, he’d no doubt observe as he trips over the bumpy surface at the bar before suing on the grounds of neglect for inventors.
The bar features what you’d expect from a pub in Wales; Brains beers from the firkin, ‘continental’ lagers and copious wines on offer. We’re not sure whether Mitchells & Butlers are taking the ‘vintage’ look as far as possible by neglecting to spend any money whatsoever on patching it up, but it really does look like the sort of bar you may be unfortunate enough to stumble upon in a conservative club. The beer (Reverend James) was well above that standard, however!
In what we could call the ‘bar’ area, as opposed to ‘restaurant’, menus can be found on the tables at your leisure. It was a little more above standard than expected, with an attractive array of ‘classic’ British dishes presented at a ‘gastro pub’ level. It was easy on the eye, even if it did feature a ‘why not try?’ piece of advice at the top. The same message could be found at the bar as well, ‘Why not treat yourself to coffee and cake?’, it asked. Hmm, yes, why not? How didn’t we think of that ourselves? We were also asked the increasingly irritating rhetorical question by an equally casual blackboard, ‘Why not join us for fish night?’, he probed. Silly us, why not indeed! We’ll tell you why, because we’ll choose to join you if we feel like it, thankverymuch! It’s tough to put into words how frustrating it is to see that question so often in one pub, but if they’d asked any more times we might have felt intimidated, if not bullied, into making that extra purchase that they’re so ‘politely’ asking for. it borders patronising when the menu asks why we’re not trying bread and olives while we’re deciding, as if we’ve never even heard of those foods before. It’s as uncreative and empty as those ‘Ask a member of staff for details’ tag lines, but that rant shall be reserved for a venue that deserves the ribbing.
After calming down with a few sips of Rev James and a scan at the menu, we chose to sample the shoulder of lamb in the tactically-titled ‘Seasonal Favourites’ box. It’s a fixed menu in a chain of pubs, so once you’ve seen this menu here, you’ve seen them all at every ‘Vintage Inn’, unfortunately. The desire for consistency over originality is a big loss to the pub world, nowadays, but at least you know what you’re getting. Every time. There is, as promised, a daily-changing vegetarian board, as the main menu consists of animals of all edible types and a little piece of paper offering ‘specials’ of that day.
Despite our reservations of chain menus, it’s the staff and venue that make the difference, and clearly the kitchen team put a lot of care into what they prepared for us. Arriving just over twenty minutes after ordering, each dish was carefully presented, ranging from fish cakes, chicken drenched in barbecue sauce and a rich-smelling veggie lasagne. The lamb shoulder sat on a dauphinoise potato bed, resting with a medley of greens and generously drenched in a tasty and subtly tangy jus. It was as delicious as it looked, as the meat lifted perfectly from the bone, the potatoes creamy but not sickly, with the vegetables being the slight disappointment as they were marginally under-steamed but not so it spoiled the experience. They must be pretty confident with their food at The Captain’s Wife, as weren’t checked-back on to see if we were happy. On this occasion, they were correct!
Once our meals were neatly finished off, an interesting stroll to the bathroom was a necessity at that stage. It feels like you’re walking into the past as wall lights with the false ‘melting candle effect’ (very ’90s!) encourage you down the winding corridor to the toilets. Pause for a moment and observe the red, patterned carpet, the mysterious collection of pictures attached to the walls and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a hotel found rooted deep in English countryside. It’s a disconcerting feeling, as were the chessboard-themed toilets. They were clean, but featured those annoying push taps, where your hands are washed for a rationed amount of time before you have to push down again as you’re rudely interrupted. There’s also a bizarre Morse code-esque ‘tapping’ sound throughout your stay in the boys’ room, which adds to the retrospective feel!
It’s generally a good sign if you’re longing for desserts after the main meal, and The Captain’s Wife doesn’t disappoint with its offer. From ‘proper’ British dishes like Eton Mess, to profiteroles and cheesecake, there is something there for everyone, with no fewer than twelve sweet finishers to taste. What with the running ‘why not?’ theme, we felt obligated to order, choosing the Giant Profiteroles and Chocolate Brownie. Pleasingly, they were all priced towards the £4, rather than £5 mark, with the latter a steep ask in most eateries at the moment.
The desserts arrived quickly, and were much tastier than anticipated! Let’s not pretend here, none of these desserts are made in-house, but were excellent nonetheless. The fudge sauce really took us by surprise, being deeply rich yet simultaneously ‘more-ish’, while the brownie itself was what you’d expect. The ice cream was more cream than ice, which concluded in a pleasing end to the experience.
Prices are generally acceptable, totalling at around £12 per head, which isn’t bad at all. With a little more staff presence, which may be more noticeable in the ‘restaurant section’, in The Captain’s Wife’s defence, it could be a great venue for an easy-going, above middling meal out with friends and family.
Why not visit yourself some time?