As a foodie living in the Bournemouth area, it is somewhat miraculous that until now I’ve never been to The Cow at Ashley Cross. When it first became known for ‘gastropub’ style food a few years ago, it was the place to go, and you had to book well in advance in order to get a table.
There was no good reason why I hadn’t been, so I decided to rectify the situation and booked a table (a respectable 24 hours in advance) for Mr W and me on Friday night.
Ashley Cross is a buzzing little area between Bournemouth and Poole with a selection of bars and restaurants around a ‘village’ green. It’s becoming ever more popular as more and more bars open, and attracts an older (and some would say more pretentious!) crowd than Bournemouth or Poole town centres.
Friday evening was warm and dry, so when we arrived at The Cow we were met with a horde of people standing outside the pub having a drink. Unfortunately, the outdoor area adjoins the station car park of Parkstone station, which is not ideal for al fresco drinking. To call it a terrace would be pushing it and the area felt a bit ‘makeshift’, but on the other hand it is very convenient if you’re arriving by rail!
We had a drink in the bar before our meal. Again, the bar almost felt a bit unfinished, with only a few tables and a large open space in the centre – which may have been intended as a dance floor, but with the decor being more country pub than nightclub or bar, a dance floor seemed a bit incongruous.
Happily, on going through to the Bistro, we felt that the decor and ambience was much more comfortable and had a clearer idea of what it was trying to do. Although I’ve always heard The Cow referred to as being ‘gastropub’ style, the dining area is much more bistro-esque – it’s clearly separated from the bar area, much quieter, and nicely furnished with bare wood tables, stylish artwork, and shelves and window sills all adorned with empty (of course!) red wine bottles.
The restaurant wasn’t full, so we were pleased to be shown to a table for four, rather than a table for two, as it’s nice to have a bit more space, and sometimes, even when a place is not full, they insist on seating couples at tiny tables. As well as being spoilt for space, we were spoilt for choice when the menu came along. As well as an excellent selection on the a la carte menu, there were several daily specials.
The menu was so tempting that we both decided to have a starter and a main course. While we deliberated, we particularly enjoyed the bread, which was served with what appeared to just be oil and balsamic vinegar, but the latter was in fact a particularly delicious, thick, syrupy balsamic reduction, which went down especially well. I chose to start with a twice-baked gruyere soufflé, served with spring onion cream, and Mr W went for pan fried scallops with cauliflower puree and tempura cauliflower. Both of the starters were nicely presented, and delivered in terms of taste as well as style. The soufflé was a perfect texture, not at all dry – often a risk with twice-baking – with a strong but not overpowering gruyere taste, and the spring onion crème was a delicious complement to the meal. My only complaint was that the mini copper pan (the first of several mini receptacles that we experienced during the evening!) that it was served in was volcanically hot, far too hot to hold the handle to steady it whilst trying to get a forkful of the soufflé, and also so hot that the soufflé had no chance of cooling down to the point of being an edible temperature within a reasonable timescale. In the end, I resorted to holding the pan with a napkin and spooning out the soufflé onto the serving board so it could cool down. I then poured the spring onion crème over the top. It didn’t look good any more, but it tasted fantastic!
Mr W’s scallops also went down well. They were big and juicy, and the tempura cauliflower provided a welcome crunch alongside the dish.
Moving on to mains, I decided to have braised leg and roast breast of guinea fowl. I like guinea fowl, but the big selling point for this dish was its accompaniments – white truffle mash, asparagus and chestnut mushrooms. The meat was cooked well, but if anything the portion size was too much. Aside from there being two cuts of meat, it seemed to be a particularly large guinea fowl. Combining this with a very large portion of mash meant that, unusually for me, I was unable to finish everything on my plate. I thoroughly enjoyed the asparagus and mushrooms, though, and the whole thing was served with what I think was a red wine-based sauce – unusual with poultry and asparagus, but it worked. Sadly, I couldn’t detect any white truffle in the mash, but it was beautifully creamy nonetheless!
Mr W’s main course was the star of the evening. He chose what I guess could have been described (but thankfully wasn’t!) as ‘posh fish and chips’: battered fillets of lemon sole, served with crushed tartare potatoes and a pea and mint puree. The puree was one of the best I’ve tasted – a strong mint flavour, that could have been overpowering, but wasn’t. The potatoes (served in the second mini-receptacle of the night, this time a Le Creuset casserole) were crushed up with dill and capers, and the fish was in a light, crispy batter that brought the whole thing together perfectly. My mouth is watering just describing it, and this will definitely be my choice if we go to The Cow again and it’s still on the menu. This was probably the only dish of the evening that wasn’t excessive in its size (although it was a hefty portion of potatoes that accompanied the fish!)
Pudding time, and although nearly ready to burst after two enormous portions of food each, we were just too tempted – despite a couple of howling spelling errors on the dessert special, which I couldn’t resist capturing (see below). We decided to share a trio of crème brulee: coffee, lemon and vanilla. Again, these came in mini cups, but still provided a portion of dessert that was on the large side between the two of us, let alone for one person after a starter and main dish. Mr W’s verdict on the trio of brulees pretty much summed it up. “That’s quite unpleasant (the coffee), that’s just a bit pointless (the vanilla) and that’s absolutely lovely (the lemon)”. So, a generally slightly disappointing pudding, apart from the lemon one, which was indeed delicious, and in hindsight we’d have been happy just with one of those, perhaps served with some fresh berries or a shortbread biscuit on the side.
Two and a half courses each and a bottle of wine worked out at £75, which for the quality of the food is very reasonable. The food was excellent, despite the slightly disappointing pudding, and the presentation was lovely, although the portion sizes were definitely excessive – more pub than bistro, whereas the quality was the other way round. We really liked the ambience and decor of the restaurant (but not the bar or the outside area, so we’d go elsewhere for pre-dinner drinks in the future – but there’s lots of choice nearby) and the service, although not overly personal or memorable was efficient and pleasant. On the whole, it’s definitely made it onto the list for a return visit, and I’d be interested in trying it for Sunday lunch too.
Food: **** Service: *** Ambience: ****
The Cow, 58 Station Road, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset BH14 8UD