WHAT are the most important ingredients for a successful meal out - apart from the food, of course? Company (four good friends and a husband), ambience (individual candelabras on the tables, real napkins folded on side plates, families, couples and groups all having a great time), and just as important - accessibility. All of these were readily available at The Plough Inn in Christleton on Saturday night.
I hate the inevitable 'discussion' as to who is going to drive, so when I said: 'Let's cycle', husband, P, couldn't argue. It was his turn to drive after all and The Plough is only three miles away - as the crow flies.
The only downside was pulling up outside the pub/restaurant just as our friends were parking the Mercedes. We ignored the jibes of 'letting the side down' and 'what do you expect from an Evertonian' and led the way into the lounge, which had that wonderful ambience of a party in full swing. And two of our group are regulars at The Plough, so they were greeted as if they were the star guests.
This is a venue where specials are just as important as the main menu and seasonality a hot topic. Looking up at the chalkboard, the rabbit did sound tempting, but the words 'locally shot' drew a sharp intake of breath. Our pet rabbit had lived in the garden for six years, what if she'd nipped out for a stroll when rabbit was 'in season'?
Is there, in fact, a season for killing meat? Because if so, then this must be it - there was so much of it on the menu: rich oxtail casserole, lamb shank, whole roast poussin, black pudding pork and marinated pheasant - coyly entitled Game Old Bird (There were a few nods and winks in my direction at this point. Can't think why).
We all ummed and aahed as one of the men threw down the gauntlet with a 'Get the beers in Chris. You're the local, you'll get served more quickly.'
I looked from Chris, to Rob, to P - and back again. Oh god, three 'alpha' males, all at the same table. This could be a 'my starter's bigger than yours' type of evening. Well at least I could drink...
Fortunately, the choice was made easy for us - there were only four starters and none of us fancied soup.
Jamie brought us two field mushrooms (£4.25 each), two goats cheese tartlets (£4.25) and one Thai fishcake (£4.50).
'This is great,' said Rob, passing round a morsel of tart. We all concurred: the pastry was melt-in-the-mouth and the cheese sharp enough to provide a good contrast.
'This is even better,' said Chris, slurping on his field mushroom and Joyce and I had to agree as we polished off mine, both commenting that the leek, cream, cheese and breadcrumb filling was spot on. Then we all looked expectantly at P and his Thai fishcakes.
'OK,' he said. We all dived in to give our opinion. It couldn't just be OK, surely?
But it was. 'They need a bit more coriander, a bit more spring onion and a lot less potato,' said Jill, Chris' wife, 'I should know, I cooked them on Tuesday.'
And she was absolutely right, because I ate them on Wednesday.
By now, the boys were discussing the merits of pints of bitter versus pints of mild. My husband, a bitter man through and through, might have won that argument.
But Chris is such a good negotiator he nearly had me on the mild by 9.30pm. Fortunately, Joyce overhead the conversation and persuaded me to stick with the Pinot Grigio instead (and very good it was too).
So, by my reckoning, all three husbands were neck and neck at this stage. But anything could happen, because it was now time for the serious business of the main courses.
Jill went for one of the four fish dishes on offer: saumon à la Chinoise (£8.95) which was grilled and served in a filo basket of stir fry vegetables with a light soya dressing. The 'mmmmm' noises told us all we needed to know.
The rest of us went carnivore - but nothing 'locally shot'- at least not to my knowledge.
Joyce had rich oxtail casserole (£9.75), P chose duck in a redcurrant sauce (£10.50), Chris went with the Game Old Bird, while Rob and I both had venison (£12.50).
We'd been given a choice of potatoes: new boiled, mashed, roasted with rosemary, chipped or dauphinoise as well as a side dish of veg - all included in the price. At this point I was so glad we'd cycled.
There were a few moments silence. 'In my opinion, all Brussels sprouts should be served like this,' said Joyce tasting the sprout mash - and I couldn't have agreed more. The parsnip mash was just as creamy and moreish, with the good news extending to the meat.
Joyce - who has had cattle living in her fields but never tasted oxtail - wondered what she had been missing all her life; Rob and I didn't say much, so intent where we on the beautifully presented slices of pink-in-the-middle venison which tasted more tender than a fillet steak; P said his duck was very good indeed and then we all looked at Chris, hovering with our forks, ready to dive in if he didn't give his opinion sooner rather than later.
But he just smiled enigmatically and carried on eating. He knew his pheasant had to merit at least a 'very good' if he wanted to keep up and he was obviously taking his time finding the right words.
'Tasty?' I suggested. 'Delicious?' said Jill. 'It's not so good is it?' said P, ready to gloat. Chris took his time, had another sip of mild and then said with authority: 'Top banana, bl***y top banana.'
And if you knew Chris like we know Chris, that's the highest praise anyone can bestow on a dish.
More mundane, however, were the desserts. A little lacking in choice, Joyce and I shared a Baileys Cream flan and a chocolate and pecan tart, £4.50 each, neither of which were up to the standard of what had gone before, although Jill's cheese board was very generously sized.
The men in our lives were happy at last. No-one, not even these three, could compete over a cup of coffee. But what a shame the proprietors, Raph and Phil, weren't there to hear some of the praise. In true one-upmanship they were in the Dominican Republic - on their honeymoon.
* PS: As a reviewer with the final word, I thought the venison just pipped the pheasant at the post. Sorry Chris!
Location: The Plough Inn, Plough Lane, Christleton. Tel 01244 336096. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday. Lunch only on Sunday. Reservations recommeded on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Price: We paid £57 for two, including two starter, two mains, a pudding and a bottle of Pinot Grigio at £14.50.
Best thing: The ambience, the venison and, of course, the company.
Worst thing: Very limited choice for vegetarians.
Would suit: Meat lovers with a competitive streak.