The art of Strattons
- Credit: Matthew Usher
Set, jewel-like, at the centre of a stunning courtyard garden, Strattons is a masterpiece of fine Norfolk food and drink, writes Rowan Mantell.
There must be 100 reasons to visit Strattons – the sublime courtyard gardens, the imaginative menu, the combination of quirkiness and luxury, the atmospheric restaurant, the art, the architecture, the very fine wine list, the passion for using local ingredients, Swaffham itself, the Brecks . . .
It’s definitely a place to celebrate; an oasis of charm and calm, tucked away down a tiny alley in the heart of Swaffham. And we had found our own reason to enjoy a Sunday lunch at Strattons – not only was it our 25th wedding anniversary that week, but also my husband had worked out that this was the very day that our joint ages added up to exactly 100 (with him taking slightly more than his fair share of those days).
So, with a centenary to celebrate, we rocked up to Strattons. It’s a beautiful haven of a hotel. An impressive metal stag sculpture stands on the lawn in front of the elegant building – all mellow bricks, arched windows, a double exterior stone staircase. Upstairs, and in converted outbuildings surrounding the gardens, are quirky, up-market, rooms and suites. Downstairs is the Rustic restaurant. Everywhere there is art – paintings on the walls, sculptures on shelves and in the garden – creating a relaxed slightly bohemian atmosphere perfectly complementing a menu, which encompasses veggie basket soup (made from the produce of local gardens), eggs laid by the hotel’s own hens, rare breed pork raised on the nearby Oxburgh estate, and puddings involving honey madeleines, orange shortbread, cinnamon doughnuts and rhurbarb sorbet.
We sat in the garden for our first drink – a sparkling elderflower and cucumber cordial for me, and the first glass from a bottle of very local white wine for Howard. Alongside fine wines from around the globe was a white from South Pickenham, just four miles away. We were shown to our table in the restaurant when our starter was ready. Sitting beside a large and beautiful, almost sculptural, painting of a dappled woodland glade, by East Anglian artist Debbie Boon, the food would have to be fabulous to compete with the art – and it was.
Howard had slow-cooked rabbit suet pudding and boozy raisin salsa. I had chicken and pork terrine with apricots, prunes, cranberry compote and a malted cumin roll.
Both of these could have been a lunch on their own. Howard’s pudding was rich and meltingly tender within, to perfectly partner the slightly crisped exterior. My terrine was as good to look at as it was to eat, with the meat and fruit set in stripes through the chunky slice, and the delicate cumin roll both unusual and exceptionally good.
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The restaurant is open daily in the evening but Sunday is the only day it serves lunch when, alongside the a la carte menu it offers a roast of the day with cauliflower cheese, roasties, seasonal veg and Yorkshire pudding. However, when a roast is jostling for attention with pan-fried seabass, chicken roulade stuffed with red pepper and cream cheese, and black bean, aubergine and leek chilli with polenta cakes and lime sour cream, a la carte is going to win. When else could I try baked parsnip gnocchi with wild mushroom, cranberry sauce and curly kale? Howard chose roasted haddock fillet wrapped in bacon, oven roasted celeriac chips, braised fennel and slow roasted tomatoes. In our new spirit of sharing our (vast) age, I shared several of the celeriac chips and can pronounce them even better than actual chips. My only quibble with my meal was semantics. Instead of lots of little balls of gnocchi, it was three large oval-shaped mounds of crisped mash – nice but not gnocchi.
With pudding options on the back of the main menu I knew to leave space for cinnamon icecream (just £2 a scoop and heavenly). The taster cheeseboard (£4.50) was a fine idea and not one we’d seen elsewhere. Three lovely, local slices of cheese, with a homemade biscuit – just enough to be able to enjoy the flavours without feeling like embarking on a whole new meal.
Strattons is a special occasion place. It’s not cheap; in fact the final bill came to a very appropriate round number. But it is worth taking coffee in the art-laden lounge, as well as pre-drinks in the gardens, to make the most of the unique ambience of laid-back luxury created by the hotel, restaurant, (and its CoCoes café and delicatessen open Monday to Saturday).
Expect to pay
Starters £5 to £7.95
Mains £14 to £18
Strattons, Ash Close, Swaffham, PE37 7NH. 01760 723845.