A grand night out
- Credit: Gregg Brown
There are many reasons to dine at the Crown and Castle in Orford, not least a truly authentic Italian experience, discovers Frances Hopewell-Smith
Ahead of my visit to the Crown and Castle at Orford I have a phone conversation with Ruth Watson, co-owner and executive chef. She is nothing if not forthright, her opinions are made forcefully and with the benefit of years of experience in her top flight restaurants and hotels.
If you’ve seen her on TV, you’ll know Ruth has a very clear idea of what she wants and how to get it done without compromise. And it’s that drive and commitment that keeps her hotel and restaurant busy all year round. I had recently enjoyed lunch there with a friend, but Ruth says that’s not enough to make a proper assessment and insists I come to experience one of their new Italian evenings. I don’t need much persuading.
You can simply forget any ersatz ‘Italian Nite’ offerings from places desperate to attract customers. The Crown and Castle operates on a completely different level. An advance look at the menu is tempting and appealing, but cleverly understated.
The story behind the innovation is typical of Ruth Watson’s whirlwind single-mindedness. She employed a new chef, Charlene Gavazzi, binned any tired old cook books and gave prominence to three of her Italian favourites. She generously and far-sightedly sent her chef and the team on ‘stages’ (limited stints working in other restaurants’ kitchens) in the River Cafe, Polpo and Boca di Lupo in London, all of them at the top of their game in one of the world’s most competitive restaurant cities.
During our conversation Ruth explains how important it is to keep a balance of tried and tested favourites on the everyday menu, but to ring the changes for hotel guests. She is adamant, and I have to agree, that the ingredients for good Italian food have to be authentic and genuine.
She sources the proper risotto rice, pasta flour, cheese and olive oil and uses these basics as the foundation. The dishes are completed with good local fresh produce. Her attention to detail is faultless. She also encourages her team to eat out (at her expense and within reason) to experience other restaurants which are making a name for themselves or making a difference.
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The Crown and Castle is run by a triumvirate of Ruth and David Watson and their long-time friend and colleague, Tim Sunderland, the manager. It’s Tim who greets us (I’m allowed to give my husband an evening out for a change), but as I’m driver I have to refuse the welcoming glass of prosecco while we look at the menu. It’s mostly a set dinner with just a choice between fish or venison for the main course. Easy to choose then, venison for me, fish for him.
We’re shown to our table in the Trinity restaurant, which is nearly full – not bad for an off-peak Wednesday – and there’s a lovely warm bubble of conversation around the room.
Sometimes I get option psychosis so the set menu is a bit of a treat. And in this case Tim and Ruth have chosen the wines to go with each course, which means another anxiety moment is done away with. My husband is in the drinks business so can sometimes be a bit showy-offy, but he said how much he enjoyed the decisions having been made by someone else for a change.
When the food comes, it is not disappointing. The anti pasti is a sharing plate of classics with a special slant. The selection includes octopus and cannellini, Venetian stye sardine and crab crostini. A large portion of each and although crab isn’t my favourite, it tastes super, so of course it’s all gone in minutes.
Next comes griddled king scallops with scampi and prosecco risotto, which is a great combination and, although I personally prefer my risotto a little less al dente, my husband says nonsense, it’s perfect.
The main courses of haunch of venison with polenta (me) and pancetta-wrapped monkfish with borlotti bean ragu (him) are super. Polenta is tricky to get right and I have experienced everything from wallpaper paste to breeze-block consistencies, but this is very good indeed and works well with the tender tasty meat.
My husband’s monkfish (of course I try it) is beautifully cooked and the bean ragu is a good balance. The portions are sensibly sized to leave room for the next course of orange posset and sorbet with almond florentine and two Italian cheeses in perfect condition.
Knowing my penchant for puddings, husband doesn’t dare try to share my plate of deliciousness and I leave him to the cheese and accompanying wine. Throughout, the wines are, according to my husband, well judged and interesting with some more unusual pairings – he even made tasting notes on the menu, can you believe it – but I have to take his word for it.
By now we are feeling spoilt and pleasantly full, but could we just manage coffee and a hot almond fritelle? Oh, alright then . . . and all in all the perfect finale to a grand night out.