IT HAS only been open for a month, but the new-look Castle is already making an impact on the Wakefield pub scene.
Previously an Ember Inn, it has now been shifted up-market to become a 'Village Pub and Kitchen' as food and drink giant M&B shuffles some of the pubs in its massive pack.
My own local, the Queen's Arms on Harrogate Road in Leeds, is another to have the Ember stamp removed, though this has now become a Toby Inn – more of which next week.
There's only one other 'Village Pub and Kitchen' in this neck of the woods, the rather excellent Fox at Menston, so it was with a certain amount of anticipation that we travelled down the M1 to see whether the quality of fare and service we've ofttimes experienced at the Fox could be replicated here.
We weren't disappointed, though the one small downside of the Castle is that they have tried to squeeze in perhaps one or two too many tables, so it just feels a touch cramped in places.
Yet the quality of the food and drink, the careful service and the attention to detail on display by the staff here meant that this little niggle scarcely seemed to matter.
From the long car park, you enter a bar dominated by handpull wickets dispensing such pleasures as Timothy Taylor Landlord, Tetley's and Old Speckled Hen. These three are always on, but the pub is also rotating three more guest ales, currently Jennings Cumberland Ale, Leeds Best, and UBU from the Purity Brew-ing Com-pany in Warwickshire.
I opt for the russet red, caramelly Leeds Best, and my wife makes familiar acquaintance with the house rioja before we find our way to a table in one corner and work our way through the Castle's impressive menu. The main dining room is to the right of the bar, designed by someone with a perverse hatred of anything which matches. The furniture is a squabble of competing styles, the lighting a mixture of table lamps, hanging shades, lanterns and spotlights. Utilitarian black pillars prop up huge brown beams.
The effort of choosing something to eat becomes so overwhelming that in the end we plump for the mixed starter (12.95), and an opportunity to sample in miniature several of their a la carte starter choices.
There's tiny teacups of rich onion soup, cheesy crusty croutons, slivers of chorizo, big king prawns, lovely yielding crabcakes, deep-fried brie, bread, salad, pate and dips – and so much of it that one begins almost to regret ordering a main course too.
Too late for regret, though, and thankfully my main course was not over-heavy, two juicy, yielding seabass fillets laid attractively across a bed of baby potatoes soft mushrooms and spinach, with a herby butter sauce (13.95).
It was a lovely combination, and evidence on a single plate of the step-change in culinary values from the Ember Inn days.
Even so, the Castle still offers some classic pub meals and it was from this list that my wife chose the gammon steak with chips, grilled pineapple and fried egg (8.95).
It was a fairly prosaic choice from a menu decorated with words like bouillabaisse, venison and barbary duck – but she declared herself pleased with it, before twisting my arm into going for desserts too, an attractive spicy apple strudel for her (4.95), a tart rhubarb crumble for me (4.95).
By this time we'd eaten sufficient to be rendered virtually comatose so I decide that a twin-pronged strategy of coffees and business-like conversation are required to ready us for the journey home. A waitress supplies the former, and in the absence of licensee Astrid, who's been sadly called away by a family matter, duty manager Mark Milla supplies the latter.
Mark's something of a trouble-shooter, employed by M&B to help get their new and refitted pubs up and running, before moving on to the next project. He admits that there has been some resistance to the new look: "Tuesday used to be quiz night in here and some people have missed that and one or two weren't sure about the new menu. Some of the staff didn't like the changes either."
These teething issues are perhaps inevitable, but a crowded restaurant is evidence of success; the quality food which is being served proof that their faith is well-placed, their custom well deserved.
As Mark put it: "We can tell by the figures that it's doing well."
Type: Real ale bar with quality restaurant
Host: Astrid Pott
Opening Hours: 11am-11pm Mon-Thur and Sat; 11am-11.30pm Fri; noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Tetley Bitter (2.70), Old Speckled Hen (2.80), Timothy Taylor Landlord (3.15), choice of three other real ales, (all around 2.80) changes regularly. Carling (2.80), Beck's Vier (3.10), Estrella (3.50), Heineken (3.20), Peroni (3.80), Guinness (3.15).
Wine: Substantial wine list with choices from 2.90-glass and 10.95-bottle
Food: Great choice of meals available every session. Regularly-changing specials. Steak menu on Thurs, Fish on Fri, roasts on Sun. Light bites and set menu is also available, bookings now being taken for Christmas.
Children: Welcomed. Kids menu available
Disabled: Ramp access but some split-level areas inside. Disabled toilets.
Beer Garden: Yes – attractive outdoor seating areas to side and rear
Parking: Large area to rear
Telephone: 01924 256981
Website: www.the castlewakefield.co.uk