For three sweaty hours, we'd been crawling north in bank holiday traffic. Another two hours, at least, lay ahead of us. We would have to break our journey to eat. Once, our only option would have been the nearest service-station cafe. But thankfully we live in the modern world. A quick search on the Blackberry, a phone call and a sat nav-guided escape route later, and we were happily installed in a dreamy little bistro, feasting on braised pork belly and pan-fried brill. Also, this being the modern world, charred antelope steak in goat's cheese sauce, but we'll come on to that later.
We didn't alight on Baumann's completely by chance; the place has been on my To Do list ever since chef/proprietor Mark Baumann was pointed out to me at a food event as Essex's other celebrity chef. His restaurant, in the small market town of Coggeshall, was founded in 1986 as a regional outpost of Langan's Brasserie by the late Peter Langan, with whom Baumann worked as head chef.
Baumann took over after Langan's death, building the brasserie into a local legend: a small-town restaurant with big ideas. And it's clearly hugely popular – the nice lady who took my desperate phone call from the traffic jam initially told me they were fully booked that Friday night, though she managed to squeeze us in.
So it came to pass that four dishevelled travellers, lightly dusted with Hula Hoops, found themselves sitting in a smart room full of immaculately dressed Essex diners. Thankfully, we were able to pass unnoticed, because Baumann's offers so many other visual distractions. If this place had any more personality, it would be John McCririck. There are book-lined corners, and pillars sporting cartoon characters, and paintings covering every available bit of wall-space, from oil portraits to a pastel sketch of Eric Clapton. It sounds awful, I know, but the effect, in an elegantly proportioned room with slatted blinds, mismatched furniture and a golden wooden floor, is actually rather lovely.
Less so, the picture on the floor which you step over on entering, of a prostrate Mark Baumann, passed out, in chef's whites, clutching a bottle of booze. Given the horrible, alcohol-fuelled end of the brasserie's original owner, this seems in dubious taste, and certainly not a decorative touch you can imagine, say, Alain Ducasse being tempted to emulate.
But Baumann is clearly the star of the show here, with one corner of the room devoted to photos and caricatures of him, saturnine and luxuriantly coiffed, posing with his arms round other TV chefs, and generally looking handsome. The only place he wasn't to be glimpsed, it seemed, was in the kitchen.
Like the decor, Baumann's menu is... characterful. Ranging far beyond classic brasserie fare, it includes pan-global novelties such as foie gras crème brulee, and scallop sushi with lemongrass and tahini.
Our meal began on a jokey note, with complimentary smoked salmon "ice creams"; tiny cornets filled with a piped swirl of whipped salmon mousse.
With no time for starters – the table had to be returned in an hour – we needed to try as many main courses as possible, which is how our four-year-old got his first taste of sticky lemon chicken with mustard and marjoram sauce and Asian greens (two sticky thumbs up from him, though it struck more jaded palates as dry and under-sauced). And how Harry ended up being forced to eat charred antelope steak. Why did I make him do it? Why was it even on the menu of a chef who has championed, on his own TV show, the pleasures of eating local produce?
The hunk of meat, dense and chewy in texture, was reminiscent of venison, but overwhelmed by a strident goat's cheese and bacon sauce; herbed spaetzle, nubby little dumplings, completed this pointless Cook's Tour of a dish. The simpler main courses were better, though skimpily sauced; pan-fried brill with sautéed mushrooms and spring greens, and a perfectly cooked slab of braised pork belly, served with slices of herbed dumpling.
The kitchen's predisposition towards novelty went into overdrive for the puddings. Warm marmalade bread and butter pudding came with a shot of chocolate martini, whose Kahlua-like sweetness didn't harmonise naturally with the tang of the marmalade. More successful was the marriage of chocolate mousse with warm baby doughnuts dusted in sugar and cinnamon. "I love everything about this pudding," announced David, who, at eight, was very much in its target market.
Despite the menu's regrettable warning that some dishes, "like this brasserie", may contain nuts, our fellow diners seemed notably well-behaved, though maybe things kicked off after we left. Service goes the extra mile; clearly this is a well-run operation that knows how to keep its regulars happy. Baumann's kitchen may be a little over-excitable, but it sure as hell beats the Little Chef.
Baumann's Brasserie, 4-6 Stoneham Street, Coggeshall, Essex (01376 561453)
Around £35 a head for three courses before wine and service
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
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