When posh met the pub

The result was a culinary love match known as the gastropub. Ruth French visits some of the best in our region

The result was a culinary love match known as the gastropub. Ruth French visits some of the best in our region

Like many blossoming relationships, grub and pub decided to scrub up about 15 or so years back and in common with other businesses that wrestle with exorbitant rates or competition from supermarkets, managed to diversify in clever and imaginative ways.

Today’s gastropubs ( I know some hate the term) are owned and managed by extraordinarily hard-working and dedicated people as my round-robin of Suffolk’s food serving inns revealed (pub crawl in old money!) This world is a fast moving, constantly changing arena in which failure or success depends on quality, new generation food that is not only locally sourced and sustainable but also represents good value for money.

Couple that with sophisticated, stylish interiors and you have a dining experience to rival or equate with fine restaurants.

How did I choose my list? With a little difficulty actually. Sometimes the lines of whether it’s gastro or not gastro are blurred, what with so many pubs now offering excellent menu boards and good local ales and wines.

The following establishments simply stood out in culinary terms as they all offered first-class ingredients coupled with excellent levels of service but choosing from their menus was a hard task. I adore food and sometimes find it impossible to choose from a good menu so where I was politely left to my own decisions I cast around for the oohs and the ahhs and happily declared…. ‘I’ll have what she’s having!’

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The Pheasant, Gestingthorpe

This fine country pub set in the heart of the Essex/Suffolk borderland between Castle Hedingham and Sudbury is run by owners Diana and James Donoghue. James, a former landscape gardener and RHS exhibitor, brings his skills to the Pheasant by growing organic produce for the great country dishes that he features and also delights guests with his invaluable gardening tips! Diana provides a warm front of house service and together this charming couple serve the best food for miles around.

Home-smoked fish is the house speciality with good reason, as the smokery is next door, so naturally I chose the freedom-farmed smoked salmon and halibut slices served with baby leaves and a horseradish and dill mousse for starters. For my main course it was local monkjack steak served with asparagus spears and new potatoes. The steak was very tender and sweet and perfectly paved the way for my dessert of rhubarb, honey and ginger pavlova. All three dishes were superb and were clearly prepared with skill and love. The honey was James’s own as the couple also add beekeeping to their seemingly endless list of talents. A light and slightly spicy Zinfandel wine balanced the three dishes admirably.

Food from Suffolk’s best is served here to include Spaynes Hall Farm sausages and all prepared and executed with a dedication rarely seen. The Pheasant also enjoys glorious views from the alfresco dining area.

Luxury accommodation available from July. For more information visit the website.

The Pheasant Free House, Church Street, Audley End, Gestingthorpe.CO9 3AU (Closed Mondays, no food Sunday evenings) Tel: 01787 461196 www.thepheasant.net

The Crown, Stoke by Nayland

Privately owned since 2003 by Richard Sunderland, The Crown enjoys an enviable village location with stunning views over the Box and Stour valleys close to the Dedham Vale.

Richard has sought perfection here and it has paid off handsomely because both the food and the interior of this place speak of quality.

Decorated in classy, muted heritage hues and with each eating area subtly suited to different moods and occasions, it has the ambience of a fine dining restaurant without alienating the pubgoer.

Pollock fishcakes, soft quail’s egg and curried mayonnaise (homemade) was my starter choice. The quail’s egg was a perfect, soft delight and the fishcake itself was a tasty revelation. Spring is here, so I chose roast rack of salt marsh lamb with tender-stem broccoli, new potatoes and red wine & caper sauce for main course. The dedicated chefs cooked the meat ‘till just perfectly pink, as I like it and Richard served me a flight of wine to include a Chablis, Sancerre, Graves de Viaud and a Fleurie.

It is with this food-wine match that Richard’s talents become clear and he has further used his wine wisdom by including a stylish, clear glass wine store/shop within the dining area where it seem to double as a rather chic installation. Here customers can peruse and choose not only wine to accompany their meal but a bottle or two to take home at retail prices.

Beers are not overlooked either; The Crown is a proper, mature pub too and Adnams, Greene King and other fine ales are served here. I just wish I’d had room for the mint cr�me brulee and blood orange sorbet but I guess I’ll just have to re-visit. The Crown also features a classy boutique hotel with 11 en-suite bedrooms housed within a sympathetically-built extension to the original building.

The Crown, Park Street, Stoke by Nayland CO6 4SE Mon-Sat: 7.30am-11pm Sun: 8am-10.30pm Tel: 01206 262001 www.crowninn.net

The British Larder, Tunstall

Situated just outside of Woodbridge, this pub has undergone complete refurbishment and is now a very stylish place indeed. Make no mistake though, all that style is no replacement for food quality as becomes clear.

Run by incredibly enthusiastic Maddy and Ross, The British Larder is all about great British food that has freshness and quality at its heart. Self-confessed foodie Maddie explains: “It’s all about using seasonal, local ingredients that are right here on our Suffolk doorstep. So what’s available at the time we use, be that apples from your garden, food from the hedgerows or whatever fresh produce local suppliers have.”

This inspiring philosophy means that many of the dishes are changed or adapted daily. I can recommend Jersey Royal potato and wild garlic soup for starters. My fondness of both garlic and soup is legendary and this recipe was better than a traditional French ‘pottage bonne femme.’

Ross chose me a Malbec 2009 red wine with lovely cassis and prune undertones. Dedham Vale rib eye steak matched the wine and I chose a sauce B�arnaise in preference to the peppercorn sauce.

I’m not actually a huge fan of steak when out to dine and am rather fussy about the actual flavour of the meat so I’m happy to tell you that Dedham Vale steak should be heralded! I opted out of the tempting hand-cut chips and chose local vegetables to accompany but did glance yonder at a fellow guest’s flourless chocolate cake with chocolate red wine sauce and voted yes! A lovely meal and a convivial, infectious atmosphere is to be had here.

The British Larder, Orford road, Tunstall, Nr. Woodbridge IP12 2PU Mon-Sat: 12pm-11pm Sun: 11am-4pm Tel: 01394 460310 www.britishlarder.co.uk

The Duke’s Head, Somerleyton

A fine gastropub overlooking the River Waveney in the heart of beautiful Somerleyton with a high-end, cosmopolitan feel. Market-fresh fish and seasonal meat predominate here with much produce coming from the Somerleyton Estate’s own farms.

Owners David and Lisa Moss run a tight, professional ship and along with general manager Andy Rogers and restaurant supervisor Tia Whiting, have created an imaginative menu and dining experience to be proud of.

Tia suggested carrot pancakes with chilli-roasted feta and houmous for my first course followed by pan-fried sea bass, lemon-smashed potatoes and a saffron and mussel sauce. Both courses were wonderful but I could have happily bottled the exquisite saffron sauce! Andy chose my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and after declaring to him that I really would skip the tempting desserts, he proudly went through the fabulous wine list and beer stock with me.

I promised to try the rhubarb and stem ginger cr�me brulee with Viennese biscuits on my next visit and if the accompanying adjectives from fellow guests were anything to go by, I suggest you try it too! There’s also a stunning private function barn here that’s undergone major renovation and is fit for the smartest of occasions and glorious gardens to take advantage of for summer dining.

The Duke’s Head, Slug’s Lane, Somerleyton NR32 5QR Tue-Sat: 11.30am-11pm Sun-Mon: 12-4pm Tel: 01502 730281 www.dukesheadsomerleyton.co.uk

The Swan, Monk’s Eleigh

Nestling in this lovely part of Suffolk is a village pub whose owners have truly kept their faithful locals in mind when deciding to offer ‘something special.’ Nigel Ramsbottom, a cook for 30 years, and his wife Carol have transformed this ancient building whilst respecting and cleverly retaining many original and historical features. The resulting feel is of a classy bistro with many decorating touches introduced by Carol herself.

Nigel explained that although the pair had won accolades in the form of rosettes and awards for their food, they had opted to ‘play down’ that side of things. Nigel is a particularly modest hard-working and talented cook, producing everything from scratch using local ingredients, including icecreams and The Swan’s famous hot cross buns.

From the moment I watched him proudly working in his orderly kitchen, it became clear that he loved his environment and my meal would reflect his care and generosity.

The enthused and voluble locals suggested I tried Nigel’s pork, apricot and pistachio terrine with homemade chutney. I refrained from asking him for the recipe but I can’t pretend I wouldn’t love to have it! Next came a grilled, wild sea bass resting on creamy cabbage with new potatoes and a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio chosen by Carol.

Dish after perfect dish came out from that kitchen whilst Carol’s front of house skills at nurturing her guests became very clear. I chose Nigel’s baked New York deli cheesecake for dessert simply because I witnessed their preparation in the kitchen and I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s quite extraordinary what this man achieves on his own especially as the food is so well cooked. Added to Nigel’s talents is a series of well-planned cookery courses spread throughout the year (excepting August) so be sure to book well in advance as they are immensely popular.

The Swan, The Street, Monk’s Eleigh, Nr Lavenham. IP7 7AU Tue-Sat: Lunch and evening, Sunday lunch.

Tel: 01449 741391 www.monkseleigh.com

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