Meet the Suffolk owner of the UK's best gastropub

Brendan Padfield, owner of the Unruly Pig.

The Estrella award, says Brendan Padfield, owner of the Unruly Pig, gives the business the best chance of calming at least some of the stormy waters whipped up by Covid, Brexit and global politics. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Who'd have thought - the UK's best gastropub in 2022 is in Suffolk? But then, Unruly Pig owner Brendan Padfield and his chef patron Dave Wall have always aimed high. 

There’s a word that cropped up frequently during a recent conversation with Brendan Padfield: trajectory. I like it. It suggests pace and excitement and forward momentum, and it’s a fit with The Unruly Pig, Brendan’s roadside pub near Woodbridge that in January shot to number one in a respected ‘gastropub’ ranking. Number one in the UK, that is.

But first, lunch. My pal Frances and I could have happily lingered at snacks. Mersea oysters come, two crisp-fried, two shiny-silver under nothing more than a brisk little gremolata. We debate the relative merits; she champions the former, I’m for the latter. Tiny, pretty tartlets are filled with whipped smoke cod’s roe that’s as densely flavour-packed as it is airy. The fragile brik pastry demands careful fingers, but it’s an invigorating, appetite-pricking mouthful.

The Unruly Pig, the UK's best Gastro Pub Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

Brendan Padfield, owner of the Unruly Pig, the UK's best gastropub. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Our trajectory through lunch continues. Agnolotti are packed with rabbit till the fine pasta dome can take no more – how it doesn’t burst remains a kitchen mystery. Parmesan and a shiny hunter sauce add heft, more of that zippy gremolata freshens; it’s delightful. Today’s soup is leek and potato of smooth, pale refinement rather than homespun chunk. A garlicky crostino holds pieces of smoked haddock and mussels. Frances makes all the right noises.

Brill is a magnificent hunk of pearly fish. Its flesh slips off the bone into a inky pool of avruga caviar sauce that’s poured tableside, a fat caviar-topped clam in its shell balances on top. It’s a stylish, deliciously mineral study in black, white and broccoli-green.

The man in charge here is rarely short of words. When Brendan laughs he convulses with emotion; ditto when he weeps. He speaks his mind, but with the carefulness of the lawyer that he was before ditching that profession to become a publican in April 2015. He slides onto the banquette, all ochre leather, that curves round table four to tell me about the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs awards ceremony that had happened just three weeks previously. “I couldn’t get out of my chair, I was far too emotional. Karl [Green, head chef] is like me; Dave [Wall, chef patron] is cool as a cucumber, but even he had a little tear. There’s a lovely photo of the three of us embracing.” He shows me the picture, and it is lovely.

Dave Wall and Karl Green, chef patron and head chef at the Unruly Pig.

Dave Wall and Karl Green, chef patron and head chef at the Unruly Pig. - Credit: Claudia Gannon

The Unruly Pig, the UK's best Gastro Pub Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

The Unruly Pig has undergone a post-lockdown refurbishment. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

The award – he says it’s the highlight of the past seven years – joins existing accolades. The Unruly Pig is the Good Pub Guide’s reigning dining pub of the year, it won the food category in the most recent Great British Pub Awards, and Telegraph critic William Sitwell’s comment that it is “just a damn good restaurant” is writ large on the website.

Most Read

“The Estrella award means a lot,” says Brendan. “It gives us the best chance, not of sailing through this period, but calming at least some of the stormy waters.” The ‘stormy waters’ are those whipped up by the pandemic, Brexit, and global politics that have made running a hospitality business so brutally challenging. 

“But if we can’t survive, who can? I have that confidence. We have the drive and determination and the track history.” He’s referring to the fire – it still upsets him – which wrecked the building just weeks after it opened as The Unruly Pig. “We came through that; we came through Covid.” Both challenges led to a business ‘reset’. “Covid has enabled us all to do things in a way that works for the business,” says Dave. “The menu is shorter, we can be more consistent.” 

Chef patron Dave Wall says Covid has enabled them to do things in a way that works for the business.

Chef patron Dave Wall says Covid has enabled them to do things in a way that works for the business. - Credit: Unruly Pig

The team functions – it’s clear from watching it during service. Dave and Karl run the kitchen. Corin Troung and Matt [SURNAME] have had their five years’ service rewarded by promotion to sous and junior sous respectively [CHECK]. TJ – he’s not known by any other name – joined as restaurant manager from Tom Kerridge’s Michelin-starred Marlow pub, The Coach. “He’s so positive, has a can-do approach, has opinions,” says Dave. “I like that.” But it’s the Brendan-Dave relationship that anchors everything. “He’s my absolute bloody hero,” says Brendan. “Without him, we wouldn’t be here, plain and simple. I’ve been damn lucky. I drive him crazy, he drives me crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

I return on a Saturday. Sunshine streams through windows and there’s a gentle promise-of-spring warmth that’s welcome after Eunice’s rampage. Bar supervisor Jason King shakes lunchtime cocktails from his shiny new bar area. It was part of a post-lockdown refurbishment which saw also the removal of the booths (they’d been installed for Covid safety), installation of the banquettes, the arrival of a cute pig’s bottom in bronze by Suffolk sculptor Alice-Andrea Ewing, and the switching on of a fancy air-filtering system, because Brendan is nothing if not careful. Vodka-based cucumber fireballs, their rims dipped in cayenne for a lingering lip-tingle, are flying out, Jason tells me, as he shakes.

An octopus starter is simplified compared with its early Unruly iterations when it would come with multiple sauce swirls and garnishes, burrata and squid ink tortellini. A single artistic curl sits on a white plate. It’s still a dish that pulls no flavour punches, the char on the tentacle giving a little smokiness, black olive tapenade delivering salt, ‘nduja chilli heat, squid ink a briny savouriness. Croutons – just three – and basil leaves play bit-parts.

Jerusalem artichoke risotto with veal sweetbreads.

Jerusalem artichoke risotto with veal sweetbreads. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

I inhale deeply the Jerusalem artichoke risotto that follows. It is intoxicatingly savoury, decadently and generously showered in black truffle. The rice has a little bite and a lot of butter, it comes with veal sweetbreads that are seared and crisp outside, bouncy and plump inside. I make a note to come back for the tagliata, aged sirloin cooked till pink, boned, and served sliced across the grain. The dripping chips on neighbouring tables look like the chips of (britalian) champions: hot, fat, crisp, and doused in parmesan. Next time there might even be a bistecca alla Fiorentina to share, the classic hunk of T-bone that keeps Tuscany turning, served in Suffolk with chorizo and ‘nduja mac ‘n’ cheese, a little Caesar salad, bone marrow sauce, and more of those chips. “Nobody else does it round here, and when it’s done right…” Brendan fades into a steak-filled reverie. Authentic Italian? No, but the Unruly Pig doesn’t ever claim to offer that – it’s ‘britalian’ and that’s fine.

To finish? A custard tart is sweet pleasure that shudders slightly on the unscientific but satisfying plate-nudging test. I could have gone round again, and then again, and again as if the trajectory of lunch had left me somewhere in orbit. I’d have happily spooned the set custard on repeat through the fresh, pretty-pinkness of blood orange sorbet and rhubarb till someone brought me, reluctantly, back to Earth.

A scholarly approach

Dave Wall is on the lookout for his first Unruly Pig Scholar in a programme set up in partnership with the Suffolk Centre for Culinary Arts (SCCA) at Suffolk New College, Ipswich.

The Scholar will be chosen from applicants studying cookery at Level 3 at the SCCA. The successful chef will spend their final year as a paid apprentice at The Unruly Pig, earning a £1,000 bonus and chance to apply for a full-time job on successful completion.

“I want to be a positive influence,” says Dave. “Cooking still has the ‘oh, you didn’t do well academically, so go and be a chef’ attitude, but we’ve got to move on. Do you need to be a genius? No. You need intelligence. Opportunities are there for motivated, intelligent people.” 

From the menu 

Leek & potato velouté, smoked haddock, mussels, garlic crostini    £12
Aged beef battuta, Cacklebean egg yolk, black winter truffle    £16.50
Mersea crab tonnarelli, brown crab emulsion, chilli, lime, spring onion    £21
Pigeon wellington, huntsman sauce, smoked beetroot, pear    £29
Earl Grey panna cotta, roasted pear, px raisins    £9
Ugandan chocolate delice, espresso ice cream    £10

Brendan’s love of Italy flows into the wine list; its grapes and vineyards are well-represented with a soave from the Veneto a £26 opener.

A bright verdicchio di matelica from the grape’s Marche homeland (£34), and a bold gewurztraminer from the acclaimed Tramin winery in Trentino-Alto Adige (£52) are among the white wines. Monchiero’s nebbiolo d’Alba works a dream with Dave’s rich roasted veal sweetbreads, and Jason is a fan of Il Seggio, a super-tuscan blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot from the coastal Poggio al Tesoro winery (£52).

The list has been simplified, ditching descriptions and pairings and encouraging exploration. “Much better to have a conversation with guests about what they like, and take it from there,” says TJ. A restrained wine-drinker might appreciate the 125ml pours of ‘monthly special’ wines, and how exciting to see the entire list available by the glass (from £7.50). Look out for a gem: apply, full-flavoured Langham Wine Estate’s Culver fizz is made with traditional champagne grapes grown on Dorset’s chalky slopes, and a glass of it can be yours for £10.50.  

Non-wine drinkers are looked after with mocktails, kombuchas, homemade lemonade. There’s Adnams and Guinness on tap, and good billing for Estrella Damm lager – for obvious reasons.