With first my sister and now some good friends living down in Bournemouth, I've bombed past Winchester on the M3 countless times, but never quite seemed to have the opportunity, or pick the right day (lunch is only served at the Black Rat on weekends), to pull off the motorway and call in.
So I was very excited when, after what feely like an age of trying, we finally managed to book in for some early afternoon repast on the way down for a weekend of spirit hunting (vodka rather than ghosts, on this occasion) with the girls.
Winchester is a charming place and the Black Rat is a charming restaurant. Set on Chesil Street, at the edge of the city centre, this converted pub has retained many of its original features and possesses a wonderfully ramshackle charm, complete with uneven steps; bookshelves crammed with legal tomes; walls hung with anatomical drawings; and, by the inglenook fireplace where I was seated, a full sized wooden leg.
While it may sound like a twee interior overload, there is a natural easiness to the place that feels genuinely welcoming - in contrast to some botched attempts at ‘historical’ that can leave you feeling as if you’re dining in a Ye Olde world theme park.
Our welcome was friendly, despite our late appearance - traffic coming in to the town for the annual Christmas markets put our very best laid plans out somewhat – and we were soon supping a Hampshire Rose ale local Itchen Valley Brewery.
The lunch menu is short and sweet; three courses with three choices for each and priced at a very decent £22.95/£25.95 for two or three courses respectively. Most importantly, I wanted to eat it all.
House made bread (a workmanlike granary and a puffy, rich fociaccia-style white) were served with good, plain salted butter and an even better version that had that had been burnt, whipped and sprinkled with sweet burnt onion powder.
My starter of steelhead trout, beetroot meringue and puree, horseradish and pink fir potatoes was one of the prettiest (and tastiest) plates I've eaten all year. Everything was sublime; from the pop of the fish roe on top the quenelles of baked trout and the crunch of the cucumber batons to the gentle hit of dill and lemon.
Most impressive was the beetroot elements, with the smoothest, sweetest puree and the shards of meringue, cleverly imbued with the rich earthy note of the root veg, that melted on the tongue.
Despite her starter envy, the Ewing enjoyed her celariac and apple soup, garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and crowned with a venison scotch quail's egg that was, despite its diminutive size, still gloriously gooey in the centre.
Again, the textures were superb with the silky tuber soup being offset by the sharpness of the apple and the crunch of seeds. Simple, but very well considered.
My Jimmy Butler pork belly with Black Rat pudding, pig's ears and carrots was an autumnal riot. For the second course, the puree threatened to steal the show, being so sweet, light and well seasoned that you could have given me a bowlful and a spoon and I would have been quite happy.
Not to say everything else wasn't spot on; the pig's ears being both crisp and cartilaginous; the pork belly gently wobbling, it's rich fat infused with fennel; and the vibrant purple carrots and iron-rich black pudding providing strong supporting cast.
The Ewing chose the seared pollock with a pine nut crust, burnt butter parsley spatzle, cuttlefish and alexanders. A very good looking plate that married the grassiness of the veg with the bitter ink, toothsome cuttlefish and pearly flakes of sweet fish. Clever cookery that showed plenty of skill whilst managing to keep all the flavours clean and distinct.
After the magnificent highs of the starters and mains, pudding was somewhat of a let down. My plate of Middle Eastern inspired sweetmeats was as pretty as a picture, but the golden raisin studded baklava looked very dark, and tasted unforgivably burnt. I should have sent it back, but instead persevered through the layers - hoping it was just caught on top and I'd soon reach squidgy, honeyed depths - only to find it crisp and charred all the way through.
The rest of the plate was better, the ethereal pistachio ice cream being the highlight, especially when combined with the sharp pop of the fresh pomegranate. The Turkish Delight was also interesting, being citrus sharp and jelly-like, rather than the chewy, rose scented and sugary confection I'm more familiar with.
The Ewing's peanut butter parfait fared better. While the peanut butter taste was rather restrained, the texture of the parfait, like my ice cream, was divine and worked in perfect tandem with the tart cranberry jelly. White chocolate 'snow' added a fun festive touch, and the praline and popcorn an element of crunch.
I thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at the Black Rat; the food being considered, well executed and good value and the staff friendly and conscientious. And while Alfred - whose hulking statue dominates the top of Winchester High Street - may have had a hand in my burnt pudding, overall, like the man himself, it was still great.