Food & Drink: Fine wine, and good food to boot: Emily Green has a soft spot for Suffolk. So, when she heard from readers about two very different places serving honest-to-goodness fare, she was off
Saturday 26 February 1994
The first letter praised what it described as a low-key place with exceptional food: the Old Boot House at Shotley. Local affection is such for this four-year-old restaurant that a gent giving me directions shouted as his parting words, 'The food is good]' The second letter came from one of the proprietors of The Wine Bar in Woodbridge, recommending the wine bar in Woodbridge.
The Old Boot House sits in the marshy Suffolk farmland just west of Ipswich. For me, this was almost recommendation enough. I nurse an almost inexplicable affection for this part of the country.
Suffolk is not an obvious beauty spot. It is flat and scruffy. Earthen-coloured washes on farmhouses have largely given way to seaside-pinks; pylons line up across a landscape that seems about to be engulfed by suburban housing. Yet Suffolk's swirling fogs and ancient churches can still stir the soul.
The Old Boot House combines all these qualities - the twee, the banal, the haggard, the suburban and the graceful. A small bar and dining-room were neat and prissy, with such rustic props as old bread crocks.
The Old Boot House could not, however, be a more pleasant place to lunch. Sun pours in. The hostess is cheerful and capable. During my visit, one of the owners appeared with her new baby, chatted amiably with a group of regulars, then disappeared.
As for the regulars themselves, of whom there were only three that Friday lunchtime, most chefs would kill for such a noisily appreciative group. Once my food arrived, I could taste what they were gurgling about.
A bouillabaisse-style fish stew was gutsy and good. I cannot entirely see the logic of garnishing it with a miniature croissant, nor of topping the stew with julienned spring onion. I suppose the onion gave a fresh kick, but the croissant was just silly. Fish stew needs nothing but a hunk of rough bread, first to eat quickly if one chokes on a fish bone, second as a sop.
Of main courses, lamb was listed as 'roast 'chunk' of lamb with Mediterranean vegetable casserole'. The meat was good, but the vegetable casserole not to my taste. Its liquor had the Bisto-like quality of the intensely reduced sauces favoured by too many chefs.
Had the neighbouring Falstaffs been less voluble about their puddings, I might have missed the delicious prune and brandy ice- cream. Coffee was fair, house wines pretty awful, though there were keenly priced rhones and burgundies on the list. As much as most people can eat and drink, including tip, should cost between pounds 20 and pounds 30.
I ARRIVED early at The Wine Bar in Woodbridge. The name was unpromising. Standing at the foot of a steep flight of stairs, I was assaulted by what smelt like mildew and disinfectant. Had I not been meeting colleagues, had it not been bitterly cold, I would have fled.
Others may have been deterred for the same reason. Still, clients have been climbing those stairs since the present proprietors, Sally O'Gorman and Richard Lane, took the place over in 1981.
The room is agreeably rough: timbered partitions, deep red walls, rickety laminated tables. It has a slightly bohemian vibe. Other charms are rather more singular: it is not every host who can stand by a table and look his seated guest in the eye. Mr Lane is a dwarf, and he is a born host - rocketing around the floor, taking orders and generally cosseting his guests. However, his real love, aside from his partner (Ms O'Gorman), appears to be wine.
A long list has a good selection of classics: burgundies, rhones, Alsatian wines. Most evident is a weakness for noble reds, especially clarets. This is lionhearted, but can make for tricky drinking. We drank his last bottle of 1987 Lady Langoa, from Chateau Leoville- Barton-Langoa, a St Julien from the Haut- Medoc. It was very fine, and a snip at pounds 13.30, but drinking it was a waste. It needed twice as much time again in the bottle.
These sorts of reds are made to serve with food. Unusually for proprietors of wine bars, Mr Lane and Ms O'Gorman care about the food they serve. I had guessed from the strengths - and some obvious weaknesses - of Ms O'Gorman's cooking that she was self-taught. I was right. A 'New England cod chowder' was somewhat watery and drastically underseasoned. Leek and roquefort tart was thin, perhaps day-old, but passable. The real delight was a 'pheasant burger': two little buns that tasted home-made, sandwiched perfect meat, accompanied by sweetly caramelised onions and a good chutney.
Pigeon breast was served with a roasted pepper in thyme sauce. Again, this was a good, wintry dish, the sweetness of the peppers balancing the astringency of the thyme and richness of the sauce and meat.
A bread-and-butter ice-cream was superb, and there is an irresistible range of dessert wines. One could get a good meal for pounds 15; we splurged, and spent more like pounds 28 each.
The Old Boot House, Shotley, Suffolk (0473 787755). Vegetarian meals by arrangement. Open lunch and dinner Tue- Sat, lunch Sun. Access, Visa.
The Wine Bar, 17 The Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk (0394 382557). Vegetarian meals. Open Tue-Sat lunch and dinner. Cash and cheques only.
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