This used to be a halfways decent local pub that did some average food to a regular clientele with some ordinary B&B and a skittle alley all boosted by hosting local shoots and wedding parties. As happens to so many local pubs as soon as anyone made anything like a reasonable living out of it the rents were pushed sky high so nothing very much changed with a succession of hopefuls, first timers etc. trying to make something of the place.
Now it's been 'boutiqued' (some might say buggered) with low settees and coffee tables where there used to be a fruit machine, TV and pool table. Complete refurbishment all through has changed the atmosphere completely. It's chic in a modern/traditional kind of way. It was good to still see John the tarmac in his corner but we were more used to seeing him in his work clothes than the smart outfit he was sporting Saturday lunchtime.
There was no obvious ramp at the side door (the front door is up a flight of steps) and the step is quite steep, but we had been here before and managed to get in without too much hassle. We were welcomed heartily and served rapidly by efficient bar staff despite a couple of B&B bookings coming in through the door at the same time as we did. The Beer (Wadworth's Henry IPA, they do 6X as well) was as good as I can remember it being anywhere and, like many of the better premises nowadays, they had a pleasant, still, apple juice for the non-drinker. We perused the (fairly short) menu and went through the usual rigmarole of what I could eat with my wheat allergy. I was a little worried that the chef wasn't as aware as she might have been, not realising that soy sauce contains wheat as may black pudding, but she was quite able to adapt the dishes to suit should I require. We plumped on chicken livers for starters, I had decided on a steak but was persuaded by the enthusuasm of the FOH manager to give the cheeseburger a go, MrsSRD decided on slow roast belly of pork. The bar tables were pretty full with B&B guests although there was some space left but we decided to posh up in the restaurant. Nicely refurbished, although the settles are rather low for the tables, with simply laid places and unobtrusive cutlery and glassware. I asked for the rather loud muzak to be turned down and the manager simply took the speaker away, excellent. I had a look through the wine list, some obvious choices and one or two unusual ones (although they seem to be becoming more usual, I recognised a couple I had seen during our tours of the North York Moors so someone is doing some good marketing) and a fair selection of wines by the glass, markups were fairly steep but I've seen worse. Having accepted the recommendation for the food I went with recommendation for the wine which turned out to be a massive grenache, very good but I generally prefer something a little more austere. The recommendation was put into focus a little later when the manager admitted that he didn't usually drink red, preferring white.
Warm salad of pan-fried (how else are you going to fry things?) chicken livers & pomegranate was perfectly cooked with the chicken livers bursting with juices which mingled well with the juices of the pomegranate seeds liberally dispersed through the dish. Some of the livers were soft in the manner of ones that had been frozen and I considered the amount of rocket in the garnish over-balanced the dish, although Mrs Riverdale disagreed, but it was an excellent start.
My burger arrived on an elongated wooden board with the burger (without the bun) at one end, a bucket (literally) of chips in the middle and a pile of requested rocket and parmesan at the other end. On the negative side; the burger had a lump of cos lettuce, half a slice of gherkin, a slice of under-ripe tomato and a slice of cheddar like cheese pinned to it with a cocktail stick and the chips, despite being hand-cut, were somewhat skinny, very crispy and well-salted. I'm not a fan of the fad for unusual serving ware, at least the board had a gutter to catch the juices, but what's wrong with a plate for god's sake? and the (somewhat rusty) bucket of chips is downright silly, can you imagine what would happen if one added vinegar? On the positive side the burger was excellent, thick, juicy and (as I had somewhat belatedly requested) cooked medium rare. It had an additional smoky taste, maybe some bacon was added to the mix, and I loved it. Mrs Riverdale's pork belly was black pudding less as none had been delivered that morning, not a real problem for her and she was offered to change her choice but decided to stick with it, a good choice as it too was excellent, the meat thoroughly cooked through but still moist in the style of a good duck confit. The crackling was presented as a large sheet reminiscent of a pie topping, unfortunately it wasn't scored so cracking it open was a bit messy, thank god for the massive linen (hooray) napkins. A fine spoonful of mash and some good braised red cabbage accompanied with an excellent gravy (said to be Calvados jus but we couldn't detect the Calvados, maybe the liquor isn't strong enough to come through the strength of the other flavours). It was all very good.
We both decided on the chilli chocolate pot with an orange and hazelnut biscuit (although I had to skip the biscuit) as MrsSRD's first choice of banana and peanut butter cheesecake wasn't available. It arrived in a tiny espresso cup which was swimming in another of the vast soup bowls, try chasing that round with a teaspoon when you only have one hand to control it! It was glorious though.
A cup of espresso rounded the meal off.
It was good to see linen napkins in the restaurant (I don't know about the bar), and interesting glassware and crockery, but the narrow rectangular plate my steak arrived on couldn't be set close to the edge of the round table we sat at.
At less than £55 for the two of us it was excellent value with well prepared, and cooked, food and good service in pleasant surroundings, I just wish they would drop some of the sillier presentational ideas. Also, when the website suggests that menus can be changed as frequently as twice a day it was disappointing to find main ingredients missing from the dishes.
The new owners have put in a lot of effort both in the premises and in their marketing (for instance the pub hits no. 1 when googling 'The Somerset Arms') and I hope it all works out for them, if it doesn't we will be bereft of a fine eating place.