Food & Drink: Doing very nicely, and no thanks to us: Robert Mabey's restaurants are popular and fun, but Emily Green still has doubts

To judge by the affection Robert Mabey inspires in East Anglia's leading restaurateurs, he is a genuinely nice man. This is no mean praise for a chef, whose profession typically involves long hours, short tempers and tangled grudges.

He has been less fortunate with critics. When he launched his first restaurant almost five years ago, two leading food writers wondered in print if the meals he served them had been rehydrated, reheated or both. Yet Mr Mabey's business has flourished into a small chain. A month ago, he opened his third Suffolk restaurant, St Peter's in Ipswich.

One thing is certain: the loyalty Mr Mabey commands from his colleagues is well earned. After his apprenticeship in a series of taxing London kitchens, including Le Gavroche, he was called in the mid-Eighties to a troubled Michelin-starred restaurant in rural Norfolk. The chef, David Adlard, with whom he had worked at the Connaught, was ill and in urgent need of a locum. And it was while he was at Adlard's (then located in Wymondham) that Mr Mabey was noticed by the proprietors of Hintlesham Hall hotel in Suffolk.

Hintlesham did well with Mr Mabey at the stove, and Suffolk proved hospitable turf for him. In the autumn of 1988, he left the hotel to open Mabey's Brasserie in nearby Sudbury. The Regatta in Aldeburgh followed; then, last month, St Peter's.

When Mr Mabey left Hintlesham Hall, it was natural for the critics to follow. To their dismay, the food he served in Sudbury did not reflect the standards of the gastronomic temples on his CV. Expecting something related to Le Gavroche, they found it was closer to a motorway service station.

The first critical groan in these pages came from a freelance, Denis Curtis (formerly food writer for the Telegraph). I edited the piece and, mindful of Mr Mabey's record, several months after, asked the late Jeremy Round (our inspired, rather more modern food writer) to look in and double-check.

These two gentlemen were not given to agreeing on much, but they did about Mabey's Brasserie. They reported 'fresh lobster soup' that tasted abrasive, like something from a packet; salty lamb burgers spiked with a violent cocktail of aromatics; soggy chips; and partially reheated puds.

Almost five years later, it may seem gratuitous yet again to review a Mabey restaurant. It would be, had the stream of praise for Mr Mabey not persisted, most impressively from Nigel Raffles, whom Mr Mabey helped to set up St Benedict's Grill, one of the better restaurants in Norwich. I had not been in the new Ipswich restaurant for long before it became obvious that the critics had almost certainly been right. The food was bog standard. Granted, the menu lists certain exotic items, such as 'Italian leaf salad with fresh parmesan and olives', which the waitress thought might involve olive oil. Understanding of Italian food is not a strong point at St Peter's: another dish included 'pasta noodles'. From the Orient, there were prawns with a dipping sauce. Mainly, however, St Peter's seems content to serve sturdy English fodder, dressed up for a wine bar.

I had a gruel-like potato and leek soup served with greasy, under-baked garlic bread. To follow, 'roasted chump end of lamb on a pea puree with herb sauce and hand-cut chunky chips' consisted of characterless meat on mushy peas (not puree) with a vague hint of mint, and big, rough chips that looked better than they tasted; I would guess they had been sitting around. Caramel ice-cream with toasted almonds was truly pleasing, reasonably wholesome but reminiscent of sticky toffees from the newsagent. Coffee was weak and seemed to have hotplate fatigue.

Discussing the restaurant further requires the logic of not just a restaurant critic but a (provincial rep) Prince Hamlet. For every minus, Mr Mabey chucks us a plus. In his defence, it is arguable that we critics may have expected Robert Mabey to cook Michelin-standard food, for the simplistic reason that his teachers did. This is to ignore the fact that he seems happy (and successful) with his middle-brow chain of family restaurants.

Plain grub, however, still deserves skilful treatment. Rejecting three-star silver service is no justification for bad cooking. And anyone who makes it known that he cooked at the Connaught and Le Gavroche should be able to serve garlic bread properly.

I wonder if Mr Mabey is not being too nice for his own food. An equally good-hearted restaurateur in Italy or France might not have the same problems, propped up on all sides by quality suppliers, experienced staff and knowledgeable customers. In Britain, however, putting good food on the table can be a fight.

I will not write him off, since to do so would be to deny him credit for certain gentle reforms. His chips may not always be as good as they look (probably the result of some professional economy), but they are chunky, hand-cut and, gutsily, the skin is retained; they have not been dumped from a freezer bag. When a blackboard menu promises 'local game sausages', I bet it really is local game, and good on Mr Mabey for employing local produce.

St Peter's is a happy restaurant, done out in bright yellows and blues. It is child-friendly: those heavily polyurethaned pine tables can take any number of spills. It brightens up a bleak spot of Ipswich near a roundabout, a dull-looking hotel and a grimy riverfront industrial patch. It has free parking, no-smoking sections, vegetarian dishes. Staff are amateurish, but really hospitable and eager to please.

To Mabey or not to Mabey, that is the question. Suffolk says yeah.

St Peter's, 35-37 St Peter's Street, Ipswich, Suffolk IP1 1XP (0473 210810). Vegetarian dishes. Open Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. Light bar meals from approx pounds 5, in restaurant pounds 10-pounds 15. Three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT approx pounds 20-pounds 25. Visa, Access.

(Photograph omitted)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Day In a Page

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms