I'VE always been intrigued by The Olive Tree and when I learned that there was a new couple at the helm I thought that the time was ripe to finally try it out.
Situated in the appealing village of Kelsall, it occupies a prime spot opposite the main retail area. It's a hard building to miss as the Old Chester Road loops around it, giving the passer-by an opportunity to survey it from nearly every angle.
The Olive Tree used to be known as The Morris Dancer, a colourful place which, so I'm told, had a maypole out at the back.
Now it extols itself as a 'country pub and dining' venue and has spared no expense in giving the customer a Mediterranean feel from the outside - it boasts a charming veranda draped in climbing plants and this had already managed to bring a feeling of warmth to a cold, damp January evening.
The warmth didn't dissipate once my wife, Kate, and I stepped inside. We were greeted by a friendly waitress who offered us the choice of a drink in the lounge area first or to proceed straight to our table. We opted for the latter and were seated in full view of the open kitchen at the back of the venue with a patio heater roaring away behind us.
The setting was eclectic to say the least. Elements of country pub remained (not least the gigantic fireplace), intermingled with a more continental colour scheme and modern glass panelling.
Such variety was echoed in the menu, or rather menus as The Olive Tree does two - an a la carte offering which undergoes occasional changes and a daily menu which offers three courses and coffee for a very reasonable £12.95. On Sundays the options are expanded with a two-course roast for £7.95.
However, in my mind there was only one choice for a starter - moules marinière. This dish is one of Kate's specialities and she threw down the gauntlet that it couldn't possibly be as good as hers.
The mussels arrived soaked in white wine, with garlic and onions, backed up with two impressive chunks of bread to mop up the tasty sauce. The mussels themselves had a lovely creamy taste and light consistency and I savoured them all. Never have I taken so long over a starter I really enjoyed.
Was it as good as Kate's? Well, therein lies the secret of a happy marriage. To be honest, she'd forgotten to ask as she was far too absorbed in the goats' cheese salad that she had ordered.
This consisted of two large slices of the cheese - warmed through so they were melting and creamy around the edges but retaining a crumbly texture in the centre - combined with a mixed leaf salad expertly dressed with the merest drizzle of olive oil and vinaigrette.
Our plates removed, we surveyed our surroundings once more and became fully aware of just how quiet it was. Including ourselves, there were only three groups in, the other two comfortably out of view and out of earshot. Not even the Nolans singing out of the sound system that they were in the mood for dancing could temper the sensation that we were on our own.
But, to compensate, a great deal of space was occupied by the two 12-inch plates which were piled high with our main courses.
I had plumped for the chicken chorizo, a grilled breast of chicken smothered with a tomato and olive sauce complete with overtones of smoky paprika, topped off with bacon and slices of the delicious Spanish sausage.
On the other side of the plate sat a mound of fluffy white rice and a mixture of mange tout, sweetcorn, cauliflower and carrots. The mange tout was slightly limp for my taste but that was the only drawback to what was an otherwise excellent, and filling, course.
Kate went for something else that had caught my eye - the Barbary duck breast. The port sauce which accompanied it was sweet and fruity with a generous helping of redcurrants. It lent an extra level of flavour to the huge glazed duck breast, which in itself had a lovely crispy skin balanced with moist, succulent meat.
The duck was further complemented by an array of colourful and tasty vegetables, not forgetting the shallots, which were done to perfection.
Suitably satisfied with our culinary jaunt along either side of the Med, I cast my eye to the dessert menu, while Kate settled for a cappuccino.
I decided upon strawberry cheesecake, a choice I instantly congratulated myself upon when it arrived. Nearly an inch thick and without a biscuit base to get in the way, the intense combination of the fruit, cheese and cream sent me straight to summer, forgetting instantly the cold and rain outside.
As we departed The Olive Tree, the thought struck me that the new incumbents had inherited something rather special and that, while there is room for innovation, they shouldn't look to change too much about the place - except perhaps its level of publicity.
Location: The Olive Tree, Old Chester Road, Kelsall, Cheshire CW6 0RS. Tel: 01829 751291, Fax: 01829 751107.
Price: Moules mariniere, goats' cheese salad; chicken chorizo, Barbary duck breast; strawberry cheesecake; coffee; two glasses lemonade, pint bitter - £41.95.
Menu: A la carte and daily menus - limited in choice but not in quality.
Opening hours: Noon-3pm, 6-11pm every day.
Offers: Daily menu - three courses and coffee for £12.95, Sunday roast - two courses for £7.95.
Best thing: The rare combination of quality and generous portions.
Worst thing: Very quiet.
Would suit: Couples looking for an unhurried, chilled night out.