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)

News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering