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It was a genuine first for Secret Service: reading a menu in a restaurant so dark that your spy, and other diners, were resorting to torch mode on their smart phones to see what was on offer.
We were at The Cow, a beautiful, newly opened pub and restaurant in Dalbury Lees, a 20-minute drive from Derby city centre. Many will remember it as the Black Cow.
Your spy was looking forward to the visit largely because its owners were also behind the renovation of the Cock Inn in Mugginton, a place Secret Service rated highly.
Unfortunately, the overly subdued lighting was just one of a string of problems during our Saturday night dining experience.
However, there were positives so let’s start with them. The space housing both the bar and restaurant isn’t huge but it is hugely cosy with two open fires, ornate pictures covering the walls and caged candles dangling from the ceiling.
You’ll find a giant cow’s head on one wall and milk-churn style bar stools.
Tables are elegantly set with cut glass water decanters and on-trend copper cutlery and condiment sets. Even the table tops had a copper-effect finish.
Sadly, your spy found themselves at yet another wonky table – the same problem was encountered at the Yeaveley Arms recently – and the waitress had to fix the problem with serviettes.
In the ladies' loos, Molton Brown hand products and contemporary sinks are nice finishing touches.
But, in the gents’, the hand dryer was out of action and there were no tissues, just a sad, solitary white towel.
As part of the refurb, The Cow now has 12 bedrooms found right next to the bar and, judging from the images on the website, no expense has been spared in creating a fabulous place to spend the night.
But, of course, your spy was mainly here to sample the food and, with the aid of the phone torch, we browsed the menu.
Making the phone booking for our table for two, earlier in the week, the friendly voice at the end of the line explained The Cow offered “English tapas”. The idea is that you choose from a selection of small plates and graze, likes cows I suppose.
The cow theme runs through the menu, with On The Hoof nibbles, Cow Pat flat breads, Feed Buckets (smaller plates), Udder Bits (sides) and Big Troughs (larger dishes).
It was a difficult decision. We didn’t fancy flat breads and neither could we get excited about the prospect of a bunch of Feed Buckets – choices include potato croquettes, baked aubergine and Packington saddleback ham hock scotch egg.
So we settled on two types of nibbles and two Big Troughs – black pudding with poached egg and artisan bread with olive oil followed by shin of beef and the catch of the day.
Our nibbles arrived in good time, on warm plates. Because the place was so dimly lit and the serving plates were also dark, we were struggling to even see the black pudding.
But it was tasty enough, the egg was just about runny and the artisan bread and rich butter were a highlight.
Our next dishes were less successful. The slowed-cooked Derbyshire shin of beef had been severely over-cooked. It was so tough your spy was forced to abandon their efforts with the dish.
Our other Big Trough was tikka-flavoured cod. It was tender, flavoursome but on the small side for a "big" dish.
To accompany our Big Troughs, which were all priced £11, we ordered honey and rosemary glazed carrots and warm little spuds and red onion salad. These dishes were tiny and cost £6 for the two.
Our smiling waitress asked if everything was all right with our meals and I gestured to the beef, said not really and asked her to come back when my guest had finished eating. She never returned.
A fellow waiter eventually arrived to clear the plates and said he was sorry to hear about the beef and promised to tell the kitchen staff. That’s the last we heard on the subject and it still appeared on our bill.
There are six puds on the dessert menu and we chose a Bakewell trifle and baked, blackberry-filled braeburn apple. There was a long wait for our puddings in what was now a very busy restaurant.
Your spy doesn’t mind waiting a while for good food but the restaurant wasn’t overly warm and we sat with coats draped over our shoulders longing for the desserts to hurry up.
It would seem guests sitting close to the real fires would be plenty warm enough but our table was by the door which opened directly to outside and every new arrival or departure was heralded with a blast of icy air.
When the desserts finally arrive,d the twice-baked apple tasted good, although we only found two blackberries. However, the accompanying small pot of toffee sauce was heavenly.
Sadly, your spy’s trifle was tasteless. Served in a glass jar, it really didn’t taste of anything other than Dream Topping-style cream. There was not a hint of “Bakewell” about it.
We asked for the bill and left, thinking The Cow is probably a wonderful place to spend the night, drink and have a small bite to eat - but, for us, at least on the night we we there, the meals were not its strongest point.
Outside, there’s a Cow-branded taxi available for guests wanting to visit the nearby Horseshoes, another establishment in the owners’ portfolio. Secret Service is looking forward to checking it out.
The Cow in Dalbury Lees: So what did it all cost?
1 x pint diet Pepsi £2.50
1 x half pint diet Pepsi £1.90
1 x Panul 125ml sauvignon blanc £3.90
1 x artisan bread £3
1 x black pudding £3
1 x catch of the day £11
1 x shin of beef £11
1 x carrots £3
1 x potatoes £3
1 x Bakewell trifle £5
1 x blackberry filled braeburn £5
*The Derby Telegraph makes undercover visits to restaurants, takeaways and cafes with a view to providing a fair, balanced and accurate report on customer service and the food on offer. Our hope is that, for the sake of both the business owner and the customer, we can report positively about the places we visit. However if our experience is not 100 per cent positive then we are duty-bound to report on exactly what we find.