Restaurant review - The Duke’s Head, Somerleyton
- Credit: Dukes Head
Tessa Allingham dines at this unpretentious village pub in north Suffolk and enjoys deliciously satisfying food served in comfy, welcoming surroundings
Tara Smyth geeks out on stationery – a nice leather notebook, a smooth-flowing pen, a fresh sheet of paper unfettered by scribbles. She likes the sense of opportunity and possibility that fills a blank page. “Super-geeky!” she admits.
One particular notebook has travelled with Tara and her partner, James Santillo, in and out of pubs, restaurants, bars and street-food stalls visited over the years, and has been a place to record thoughts, feelings, what they liked and didn’t like about a place. “It’s become our own good pub guide,” says Tara. “We’ve got notes on places from Cumbria to Copenhagen.
“I wrote about how much I loved the service at L’Enclume [Cartmel] and the original Pitt Cue just off Carnaby Street in London – you’d wait in the busy bar upstairs letting the Pabst Blue Ribbon and picklebacks keep you going till a table came available. Manfred’s in Copenhagen was an inspiration in laid-back service, great wine, and really letting the quality of the ingredients shine.”
It is by beautiful chance that the very first place the couple wrote about was The Duke’s Head, Somerleyton. “It was back in 2012,” says Tara. “We were living in Lowestoft and daring to dream about running our own place, building up the idea of the perfect pub. We walked into the Duke’s Head, and it felt right. Even then it had everything we wanted. A pub or restaurant can have the best wine list or the most interesting menu, but if it doesn’t feel right, if it’s ‘pretending’, you can tell.”
The couple took over the lease on Easter weekend 2018, sharing landlord Hugh Somerleyton’s preference for lived-in cosiness rather than over-styled chic, and agreeing with him on matters of food. The menu is an unpretentious one that ripples easily through the seasons, celebrating as it goes the small-scale, the foraged, the local, and welcoming walk-in ‘pint and a snack’ guests as easily as those coming for a (booked) proper meal out.
Food is served in a dining area with rug-warmed floors and bare tables, or near the bar where spots close to the wood-burner are sought-after on a chilly day. Walls are filled with Vanity Fair prints of Victorian lords and ladies, there’s an airy, bright conservatory and outside tables when weather permits. It’s a pub that attracts walkers, Broads-visitors, families and people from the village in equal measure.
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Soda bread, warm and springy and made to a family recipe, is a delicious vehicle for James’ homemade salty butter. It comes alongside snacks that might include appetite-pricking nocellara olives, and whipped cod’s roe with smoked paprika crisps. Jerusalem artichoke soup is as luxuriously smooth as the raw vegetable is rough and knobbly.
“A neighbour has an allotment,” says Tara. “He brings them in, caked in mud, by the bucket-load. Calls them ‘squirrels’!” James is thankful for his diligent kitchen porters who scrub and peel the awkward tubers. Home-cured charcuterie is a good starter bet too. James’s curing chamber hangs with salami, coppa, pancetta and lomo from British Lop pork and he will serve whatever is at its best alongside celeriac remoulade, soda bread, and more of that homemade butter.
Pork is a favourite. James prefers to buy whole animals direct from the farmer, choosing ones that are “as fatty as possible, lots of marbling, because that’s where the flavour is”. He will determinedly use every bit, breaking the carcass down in the pub kitchen, enjoying the precision of butchery. “I love it, can lose myself in it,” he says.
A methodical approach to all aspects of cookery was ingrained in James during a formative year with Richard Bainbridge at Benedict’s, Norwich. “I learnt so much there. The work ethic is strong, organised, and Richard is rigorous about tasting and testing, always questioning whether a dish needs acid or sparkle to lift the flavours, make it perfect. I realised I could work at that level, I loved the attention to detail, but I always wanted to be in a pub.”
The shoulder will be cooked down slowly for rillettes, the collar cooked sous-vide and served as a chunky slice, and hefty tomahawk chops – cut with some belly fat left on for extra succulence – will appear on the ‘feasting’ menu to share. The loin with its golden crackling might go on for Sunday lunch, the hock will be used in a terrine or hot, crisp croquettes.
Even the head will be prepared as a dramatic sharing dish, slow-roasted, enough for two, and served with an apple ketchup. “The jowl is amazing, it’s got great fat and the meat just falls apart like pulled pork. Incredible!”
Texel lamb, hogget or mutton, either from nearby Clinks Care Farm or the Somerleyton Estate, takes James down a similarly varied rabbit-hole of inspiration. “I’ll roast the shoulder, serve it with buttered greens and pink fir potatoes and cut the richness of the meat with an acid flavour. It’ll feed three or four people. Or I’ll braise it down for a shepherd’s pie. The legs will be beautiful just roasted, and the chops – just as they are. To be honest, I do very little with everything.”
Autumn-winter game arrives from the estate in the feather. “Sometimes I take off the breast and leg of the pheasant in one piece, remove the bones, then stuff the leg with farce made from Fruit Pig haggis, then wrap the leg around the breast and roast it so it’s served as half a bird but with none of the fiddly bones.”
Goat from Maypole Pork near Bury St Edmunds is finding favour. Confit shoulder to share is tender enough to be pulled apart with a fork, the loin roasted like a piece of beef, the trim going into a ragù. Even a ‘simple’ Duke’s burger is looked after with care. It comes ‘fully loaded’, two patties layered with home-cured salt beef, sauces, slaws, homemade pickles and iceberg lettuce for crunch. A glazed bun from the Shipdham-based Sourdough Company contains the beast.
“You have to dislocate your jaw to eat it!” says Tara. “It’s reuben-y in style, with the salt beef, and a definite favourite.” The Duke’s Head isn’t a ‘sandwiches and jacket potatoes’ pub, but there’s a place for the comforting and familiar. In season, courgettes and other squash, all shapes, sizes and colours and most from Clinks Care Farm or The Tacons in Rollesby, might be roasted and served with a white onion and parmesan risotto, or cauliflower will come, nuttily charred, with wild mushrooms, January King cabbage and potatoes.
“Or I’ll make a dal, julienne the veg, dress it with a tarragon vinegar, add sunflower seeds for texture.” Again, the care is evident, even though the menu at this pub is unashamedly meat-leaning.
During lockdown Tara’s sister, Lauren, developed her pastry skills to add to her front of house management role. “She bakes a cake fresh every morning and they’re going down really well,” says Tara. “Lemon drizzle, served with macerated strawberries and slightly sweetened Greek yoghurt has been popular through summer.”
Otherwise, a chocolate mousse, made with Pump Street chocolate (75 percent Jamaican) and on the menu since day one, is head-spinningly rich, its power tempered by the bitter-caramel edge of honeycomb and a scoop of mascarpone.
Goose egg custard tart has eager takers too. “It’s my favourite,” says Tara, “silky and deep. The filling is basically a crème brûlée mix, the pastry is properly cooked, and the nutmeg flavours are lovely. We take it out of the oven just before it’s ready so that it wobbles. It’s just right.”
The Dukes Head, Slugs Lane, Somerleyton, Lowestoft NR32 5QR
From the menu
Pork rillettes, cornichons, sourdough toast £5.50
Red mullet, butternut squash, vadouvan butter £6.50
Leg of Texel lamb, creamed celeriac, lamb & truffle gravy £17
Potato gnocchi, Baron Bigod, cavolo nero, caper gratin £13
Sticky toffee pudding, butterscotch, vanilla ice cream £6.50
To share, with sides: whole brill for three £66, roast shoulder of lamb for three-four £58, slow-roast pig’s head for two £28
Food is served from 12.30pm to 2.30pm and 6pm to 8.30pm Friday, Saturday, and 12pm to 4pm Sunday, booking essential. Takeaway fish and chips available Friday evenings (pre-order). Takeaway Sunday lunch available (pre-order). Bar open from midday Wednesday-Sunday.