REVIEW: Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds
- Credit: Andy Abbott
It’s ten years since Justin Sharpe opened Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds. He’s still proudly delighting customers with simple, satisfying seasonal food, brimful of flavour | Words: Tessa Allingham - Photos: Andy Abbott
Justin Sharp's little black book is still - just about - ring-bound. It's had coffee spilt on it by clumsy colleagues, been fat-spattered, no doubt lost on numerous occasions and (evidently) found again.
An address in Keith, Banffshire, written in red felt-tip capitals on the inside front cover, dates it to the mid-90s when Justin was a wee young chef working in hotel kitchens around his home town near Aberdeen.
A piece of folded A4 slips out from the overflow of magazine clippings and dessert recipes. Typed on one side is a Sunday lunch menu.
It proposes two courses for £19.50, three for £24, suggests that you might like to spend £4 on the house aperitif, a prosecco framboise. "Only £4! What was I thinking?" Justin huffs. "Beef for £19!" You could have started with snails, bone marrow, garlic and parsley butter, or Italian charcuterie, nocellara olives and kohlrabi remoulade.
You might have followed with rump of lamb with aubergine caponata and salsa verde, or whole bream with crushed potatoes, braised fennel, leeks and saffron.
Had you been there, at the first ever Sunday lunch at Pea Porridge, you could have finished with a slice of fig and almond tart, or tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream.
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That was October 2009. Scroll forward ten years, and at Justin and Jurga Sharp's little restaurant in Bury St Edmunds, you can still have snails, bone marrow, garlic and parsley (and very delicious they are too).
You can still share a whole fish, maybe turbot or brill, and it will be brought in its roasting tray with fennel and leeks, maybe some mussels and clams too. A couple of big serving spoons and you're left to divvy it all up.
And - hallelujah - there is invariably a tarte tatin on the bar, sitting with its sticky promise of butter-caramel-apple pleasure to come.
You see, not much has changed in ten years (though Sunday lunch is no longer an option because the Sharps have the day off).
"You have to evolve," says Justin, whose frequent trips with Jurga to Spain, northern Italy, Lithuania (to visit family) and, most recently, Jordan spark fresh ideas.
"But you've got to remember that we are a neighbourhood restaurant on a back street of a small market town." Pea Porridge has regulars aplenty.
If that hot, crisp pea croquette with its squiggle of pea shoots, or that insanely good focaccia that bounces with olive oil, sea salt and rosemary, were ever absent, there would be indignant letters to the local press.
Justin is not one to waft with the wind of foodie fashion or crave the latest kitchen gizmos. His food is about simple seasonal ingredients, often under-used ones (offal-lovers, this place is for you), prepared without showy technique or faffy presentation.
A charcoal-fuelled Bertha oven is at the heart of his tiny workspace. He'll use the ferocious high heat to sear a Belted Galloway flat iron steak, or he'll bury whole leeks in the embers to char before peeling off blackened outer layers and revealing the soft, pale green vegetable, or he'll cook a rice pudding overnight as the heat cools.
He is a master at "extracting flavour out of things". Slow-braised goat shoulder is fall-off-the-bone tender having been cooked for several gentle hours.
It's savoury with onions and anchovies, the flavours melded and mixed from sitting in the cooking juices for a few hours. Ditto pigs' cheeks, given a quick char and subtly smoky flavour from Bertha before being slow-braised till the meat gives zero resistance to the fork.
They're served with celeriac purée, little chanterelles and pickled walnuts in a gutsy, generous dish.
It helps if you like the odds and sods of an animal or fish, and that the idea of duck hearts with butternut squash and spinach, or deep-fried calves brain or lambs fries (which sounds more palatable than 'testicles') scooped through a sharp gribiche, delights rather than horrifies.
Milky milts - herring sperm - are crisp-coated and deep-fried to create a hot bite that needs nothing more than a squeeze of lemon, a thin slice of rye bread, and a few bitter leaves.
Tripe is perhaps a harder sell, but there'd probably be a riot if curried lamb sweetbreads were ever off the menu.
Seasons rule. "I like things that aren't always there," Justin says. "I'll grab them while I can, then back off."
With autumn comes an abundance of local herring and he turns the slender fillets into a plate of retro Bismarck herring, the pickled 'silver darlings' served with a puck of beetroot, slivers of fennel, orange, and horseradish cream. It's fresh-flavoured, light, utterly of the moment.
Elsewhere, a generous chunk of hake sinks into a bold tomato-based stew, haricot beans, root veg and curling baby octopus to make a satisfying autumn dish.
And so to that tarte tatin. Whether Justin likes the word or not - he doesn't - it is something of a signature. The secret? Ideally he uses the French apple variety, chantecler bellechard, for its shape, size and texture, but Braeburn works well too.
And he gives it time, a full three hours in fact. Other desserts are available - poached figs with honey yogurt and amaretti perhaps, or fragrant, creamy rice pudding.
The Sharps fell for the bakery-turned-restaurant with its rustic interior (the bread oven is still in situ) as soon as they stepped inside back in 2009. Tenancy agreed - they bought the freehold some five years later - they prepared to open.
A laden shelf giving way and bringing crockery crashing down the night before opening was an inauspicious start - "I had to counsel him," says Jurga - but they picked themselves (and at least some plates) up, and word quickly got round.
The path to their pea-green door and the 46 seats beyond, fast became well-trodden.
Restaurant critics heaped praise, most notably Michelin which has awarded Pea Porridge a Bib Gourmand for the past eight years in recognition of 'good food at reasonable prices'.
"I'm proud," says Justin. "Ten years in this climate is a challenge. It's about determination - this is our livelihood - and running a tight ship." He's no stranger to the problems of finding staff or rising costs or the curse of people booking and not turning up.
"No-shows are soul-destroying. A table empty on a Saturday night is awful to see. And there's wasted food… I have to find a way to use it. People just don't think."
But he buys carefully. To have the goat delivered prepped would cost another £30 so he does it himself. He wastes little, respects suppliers, prices dishes without greed. He indeed runs a tight ship, working with apprentice Pedro Laranjeira in the kitchen, and Jurga (with evening help) front of house.
He has missed barely a single service, and opens at times that make business sense and enable him to teach Pedro.
"Today we were gutting pigeons. That was the first time he'd ever put his finger in the cavity of a dead animal. He was a bit squeamish, but did fine."
Has Justin got another ten years stove-side? "I'm 43. I wouldn't say I'm tired and old. I've still got fire in my belly and more energy than many youngsters.
"We're still doing the hearty food we've always done, and we're still winning accolades, people are still coming. I'm not going to slack." That's excellent news.
Great wines, naturally
Justin ignites when talking about natural, biodynamic or organic wines. His list is arguably the most comprehensive in Suffolk, with the unexpected and the challenging, as well as the mainstream.
"Natural wines are a bit of a niche still, and some of the best - and worst - wines I've drunk are natural wines," says Justin. He and Jurga seek out small European producers from Georgia, Austria, northern Italy, the Loire.
Look out for Italian maker, Paolo Vodopivec, who uses anfora (the earthenware vessels traditionally used to ferment, age and store wine in Georgia) to create a white wine from the Vitovska grape.
And if you're having those pigs' cheeks, try a bottle of Austrian Petit Manseng made by the Andert brothers.