Beaminster's market square is strung with bunting, as though a rogue team of set designers from a Thomas Hardy costume drama has run amok in this small Dorset town. The evening sunlight kindles the mullioned windows of squat stone buildings, and schoolboys chase each other around the memorial cross. At one end of the square, a tastefully sub-fusc double-fronted building beckons, part homeware shop, part restaurant, totally inviting.
Can all this loveliness be permanent? Or have they had a tip-off that I'm arriving with my grumpiest friend to review Brassica, the latest addition to the town's dining scene? Neither: it's the eve of Beaminster's annual arts festival and tomorrow the square will host a celebratory street party. But tonight it looks as idyllic as a Batsford book cover, even if my grumpy friend is too concerned with finding a parking space to notice. It's going to take more than a bit of bunting and a little restaurant with big ideas to convince him that Beaminster en fête is the place to spend a rocking Friday night.
Then we walk into an airy dream of a modern bistro, as pale and interesting as a Hardy heroine, and my friend stops complaining. Brassica looks terrific: clean-lined Scandi meets rustic comfy. The white tables are well spaced, bold Marimekko-style cushions colour-pop from the bench seating, and wild flowers bloom beautifully in every corner.
In one window, a copper counter displays an artfully curated library of food and lifestyle books. The inclusion of the Canteen cookbook offers a clue to the previous life of Brassica's chef-proprietor, Cass Titcombe. He was the co-founder and original chef of that pioneering modern British restaurant, which launched in London's Spitalfields, then grew into a mini-chain.
Now, with his wife, Louise Chidgey, a design guru who has worked with The Conran Shop, Titcombe has returned to his native West Country to build something more personal. Brassica is clearly a labour of love; there's nothing scalable this time round, no roll-out ambitions. This is hands-on, boots-on-the-ground cooking, with Titcombe in the kitchen every service, for up to a hundred hours a week, and Chidgey on occasional front-of-house duties as well as running Brassica Mercantile, the shop next door.
The daily-changing menu is modern European rather than Canteen's retro Brit and, like the dining room, offers pleasing things wherever you look. There are sharing boards of charcuterie and antipasti; local seafood simply prepared, such as hake with asparagus and Jersey Royals. A few dishes would fit with Canteen's house style: veal rump steak with roasted carrots, say, or crab salad with radish and brown crab aioli. Most give a sense of that cookbook collection having been joyfully plundered: panzanella and caponata, labneh and rillettes. All the signs of a chef slipping out of the constraints of a formula and just cooking what he fancies, using fine local produce.
A starter of braised cuttlefish in a brick-red, fathomlessly deep bisque comes over like the love child of a Provencal fish soup and an octopus stew and is blissfully addictive. Mildly cured salt beef – roasted Dexter topside rather than boiled brisket – is paired with clean-cut beetroot and big, shouty radishes. Hogget (mature lamb) is laid in pink slices over herbish, sour puy lentils spiked with preserved lemon. Whole Dover sole is impeccable.
Brassica may be named for the family of cruciferous veg, but apart from roasted broccoli with garlic and lemon, there's not much in the way of actual brassica on the menu. Judging from her energy, though, our waitress has been on the kale smoothies, bouncing about the place like a human Nutribullet.
The room becomes even prettier as the sun goes down: the lighting is exemplary, as you'd expect from a co-owner who's written a book on the subject. Keeping things in the family, the wine list is compiled by Chidgey's father, a wine merchant. It's mostly Old World, and most bottles cost under £30, including a slippery South African viognier from Alvi's Drift, justifiably described as a bargain in the Condrieu style.
Puddings, including a dinner party-ish flourless almond and orange cake with roasted apricots, are relatively simple, a clue that Titcombe is doing everything in the kitchen with the help of just one sous-chef. But in keeping with everything about Brassica, they exude good taste.
When we leave, the cavorting youngsters on the memorial have been replaced by smoking, glowering teens. But there's always a dark side to the rural idyll, as we know from Hardy, who set Tess of the D'Urbervilles around a fictional version of Beaminster. For local lad Titcombe, the first chapter of this return of the native looks set to be a modern classic.
3-4 The Square, Beaminster, Dorset, DT8 3AS (01308 538100). Around £30 per head for 3 courses before wine and serviceReuse content