For many years I have been visiting my parents in Suffolk and for just as many years have been struggling to find anywhere otustanding to eat.
Picturesque villages and picturesque pubs are catered for aplenty. And occasionally one of these hits a winning streak and turns out some cooking to match (as the Angel at Stoke by Nayland did for many years, or the Bell in Saxmundham for a while, the Crown at Bildeston currently…)
Restaurant-wise, there are places to go. The Crown at Orford, Trongs in Ipswich, the various offshoots of the Milsoms/Talbooth set-up, or the Great British Larder at Woodbridge. These are all decent places. Decent, rather than exciting though.(Though I will put in a word for Trongs, who are not only fantastically hospitable but for 40 years in this and the previous incarnation - Kwoks - have been the only thing standing between East Anglia and oriental spring roll and sweet and sour take away desolation...)
So last weekend, when my parents had booked us into the Great House at Lavenham, I was expecting more of the same – made up for by the charms of Lavenham itself.
[BTW, Lavenham was the centre of a medieval uprising that for me epitomises Britishness. The “Amicable Rebellion”. A revolt against a tax imposed on behalf of Henry VIII by Thomas Wolsey. I mean where else in the world would you have an “amicable” rebellion? It was characterised by some typical British incompetence as the rebellion failed to get going because the local nobility had taken the clappers out of the church bells, thus stymieing the call to arms. And it finished with everyone sitting around a table apologising to one another. Result.]
Anyway I pitched up at the Great House with expectations suitably managed…and left with them recalibrated.
I had pate en croute, but with the pate an amalgam of a loose-textured duck terrine, spiked with morsels of the ducks liver, lifted by some pickly/citrusy gel. A pot au feu of flavoursome simplicity, rich broth with the choice of turnip providing a little tartness and carrot sweetness, where the chef had had the confidence to let the beef cook all the way through and the skill to keep it succulent. I finished with a very good cheeseboard.
Elsewhere on the table, dishes were equally well judged with the highlight being a tenderloin of pork. Trust me, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve had cause to say that the “highlight was a tenderloin of pork”…and still have fingers left over. So often it’s the go-to cut for a kitchen without imagination, that is inevitably botched, bland and dry. In fact, I deliberately didn’t choose it because of this past experience: pick the tenderloin of pork? On the prix-fixe lunch menu? Are you mad? My father had sufficient streak of madness to give it a go and was rewarded with an expertly cooked dish that just retained sufficient vestiges of blush to whet the appetite without alarming the food inspectors. It was well-seasoned and delicious.
The whole set up from menu to waiting staff was unashamedly French. But not chauvinistic enough to let that constrain a cosmopolitan and well-priced wine list. So a little island of entente cordiale at the site of “amicability”. And afterwards you can always enjoy a pint nearby in the ludicrously pretty settings of Kersey or Chelsworth.
All in all, a simple, well accomplished lunch. With enough technique and invention to make it interesting and enough restraint to stop it being over-worked or pretentious. £35 for three course Sunday lunch. Cheaper mid-week lunch, pricier for an a la carte which reads very well (mid £20s for mains).
What can I say, for the first time in a long time, a restaurant in Suffolk that I would be genuinely excited about re-visiting.