It is a Wednesday night in October and I am sipping a £30 glass of champagne at the Grosvenor Arms in Shaftesbury. Not my usual tipple, sad to say, but God it's good, yellow, buttery, only slightly fizzy.
This is the Pol Roger Champagne tasting dinner, 5 exquisite glasses matched to exemplary cooking from chef Neil Duffett which sweeps from seatrout tartar to panfried Portland plaice with burnt leeks and then guinea fowl. The pretty candlelit dining room is buzzing tonight with champagne quaffers, some of whom have bagged a bedroom for the night, others who have taken the precautionary measure of taking the next day off work so they can give the Pol Roger their full attention. And what incredible champagne this is. The evening is hosted by Pol Roger's George Prideaux who believes champagne should be drunk throughout a meal, in fact, at all times, not just for celebration. And after an evening trying different varieties from house to vintage, all of them a perfect blend of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and with much finer bubbles than is usual (something to do with storing at cooler temperatures), I think I'm in agreement. George tells us about the friendship between the beautiful Odette Pol-Roger and Winston Churchill, the latter renowned for drinking pints of Pol Roger champagne and famed for saying: "My tastes are simple, I am easily satisfied with the best." My kind of guy. The Special Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 2000 which we taste next has been created in homage to him. Needless to say, it's sublime.
This event, admittedly on the flasher end of the scale, is typical of the Grosvenor Arms, now almost one year into its new ownership. For this wonderful 16th century former coaching inn situated right at the top of Shaftesbury high street, has slipped seamlessly into the role for which it was made, as a central hub for the local community. Come here first thing and you'll find the bar - squashy sofas, wood panelling, great mags - full of laptop carrying freelancers, business suits and post work-out mothers treating themselves to a cappuccino. At lunchtime it's friends catching up, mothers and daughters, more business meetings. After school the deli area with woodfired pizza oven starts kicking off for it's the perfect place to take the kids for an impromptu pizza. Design your own pizza and then sit up at the counter and watch it being made? Surely that has birthday written all over it. And then in the evening, somehow the Grosvenor Arms reinvents itself again as a treat-y kind of restaurant, where you might celebrate birthdays or anniversaries or, dare I say it, date night? Partly this is thanks to Neil Duffet (ex Limewood Hotel) and his unfaltering cooking. I've eaten here many times in the past year - pheasant raviolio instantly made it to last meal status - and I've never been disappointed. He is fastidious about his ingredients - even sourcing fish and seafood from the boat himself - and his food is seasonal but always inventive, a list of ingredients like a stream of consciousness that you and I wouldn't necessarily put together but somehow always work. Think White Lake goats curd, butternut squash, truffle honey, toasted seeds or braised pork cheek and crispy belly, coco beans and baby onions. Neil's latest invention grouse pastrami with caramelized plums, chanterelles and cobnuts is a truly delicious case in point. There is a relaxed attitude to eating here - if you want your pizza in the bar area and at 4 o clock in the afternoon, no problem. The kitchen is open from 12 to 9 and you can pick and choose as you like. Oh and there's a dog food menu here too, which I love, for your napkin toting pooch. But the other thing which sets the Grosvenor apart is the way it has risen to the challenge of filling a much-needed gap for the local community. There are morning Pilates classes and evening Mindfulness sessions in the very beautiful first floor Assembly Room (also perfect for cocktail parties). There are kids cooking classes, teenage meditation classes, wine tasting, a jazz night (first Thursday of every month) and coming soon a lunch and fashion show. New events are planned all the time - next year there's talk of a series of school band nights, the introduction of yoga, a book club, the list goes on. Though it remains first and foremost a community hangout, the Grosvenor Arms has become a target for weekending mini breakers who come for the uber beds, Orla Kiely bath products and spectacular breakfasts. On Friday and Saturday nights the bar is packed with Prosecco and cocktail guzzling locals - the house cocktail changes each week - on Sundays families come for the traditional roast (with none of the washing up). The Grosvenor Arms was always a beautiful building with its Georgian facade and now it comes neatly divided into a multi-tasking interior with bar, conservatory, deli, restaurant and first floor Assembly Room. One year on it's so nice to see it fulfilling its destiny.