A few miles inland from the coast, we’re having dinner in a small family-owned Catalonian restaurant. The owner, a wiry chap called Xavier, is beadily patrolling the packed room, chatting easily with his regulars. The two chefs, from Barcelona, have paid tribute to local hero Ferran Adrià with a version of El Bulli’s deconstructed Spanish omelette. More traditional regional specialities on the menu include suquet de rape, fricando and the grungy Catalan version of paella. The catch of the day came from the fishmonger down the road, but was probably landed at the nearest port – Lowestoft.
This dream of a holiday find is not in Barcelona, the culinary capital of Europe, but in Beccles, which isn’t even the culinary capital of north Suffolk. A small market town on the way to the Norfolk Broads, it has a Tesco, a Co-op, and a few takeaways. Never mind cutting-edge Catalan cooking, this place doesn’t even have a Matalan.
When I heard about Baileys from Polly Robinson, the founder of the Suffolk food experience company Food Safari, I wondered if she’d been foraging for the wrong kind of mushrooms. A Catalan restaurant offering adventurous, playful cooking, which only opens for dinner at weekends, above a deli packed with imported goodies from around Europe? In an area whose most notable food pioneer is turkey tsar Bernard Matthews? It sounded like a foodie’s opium dream, a Xanadu with xuixos.
Rather fearing I would be the person from Porlock who broke the whole thing up, I nabbed the last available table for Saturday night dinner. And first impressions didn’t disappoint, in that they were disappointing. We crept in through the darkened deli and up into the restaurant, housed in a vaulted former storeroom. The busy room seemed to hush, like that scene in An American Werewolf, all eyes on us as we slid over to our table, where we sat awkwardly, ungreeted by young waitresses apparently as shy as fawns.
Then the owner, stern but twinkly, approached, and everything started to move again. Here was the man, evidently, around whom the whole operation turns; Xavier Esteve, originally from Barcelona, but resident in Suffolk for 14 years. Indulgently, he talked us through the menu – the creation of his new chefs, brought over a few months back from Barcelona and left pretty much to their own devices. From his stash of hand-picked imported wines, he recommended the Gravonia 2003, an old-school white Rioja. So far, so unexpectedly convivial. And then the food arrived, and things got even better.
Blinis spread with caramelised onion and a fat wodge of chorizo-like sobrassada: a peasant’s version of an amuse-bouche. Pizzicato precision in a citric, sea-breezy tuna tartare, balanced with a legato cauliflower cream. Slow-cooked lamb from Salamanca, shiny as Peking duck, the meat not soft, but rangy and characterful, its accompanying potato and porcini galette carrying a delicate whiff of truffle oil. A fresh slab of halibut served with puréed broad beans and an intense broad bean and clam sauce. Knock-out dish after knock-out dish.
Weirdest, and most wonderful, was the one billed as ‘Spanish Omelette Century XXI’. “What makes it 21st century?” I asked the owner. “It’s served in a glass…” he replied. Cue Psycho music. It sounds awful – the flavours of a Spanish omelette, intensified and served in a dessert glass. But blimey, was it fine. A layer of silky potato foamed with egg white – God knows where they found a Pacojet in Beccles, it’s hard enough finding mascarpone – over a velvety pool of egg yolk, and at the bottom, a starburst of warm caramelised onion. Ferran Adrià may have done this dish first, but it’s almost certainly never been done better in the Waveney region.
The avant-garde tendency continued with the puddings – a mojito-inspired confection of rum and lime-flavoured crème anglaise, topped with mint and mojito jelly, and a riff on the Spanish children’s snack of bread and chocolate, which paired sea-salted chocolate ganache with orange compote, olive oil and toasted croutons.
Each of these dishes told a story, as the best meals should do. And the story of Baileys itself is great – the Spaniard from an inn-owning family who came to Suffolk to be with his English wife’s ageing parents, and stayed on, starting a deli, then expanding it into a restaurant. The succession of young chefs, brought over straight from catering college, who work with great local produce. The happy atmosphere of a busy independent restaurant in a small town struggling to keep the multiples at bay. Not a fantasy, after all, but certainly a story that you don’t hear often enough.E
Upstairs at Baileys, 2 Hungate, Beccles, Suffolk (01502 710609)
£55 a head for three-course dinner with wine and service; £11.50 for three-course lunch