Sheesh, Ye Olde King’s Head, High Road, Chigwell, Essex
It's hard to convey the giggly astonishment that sweeps over you when you walk into Lord Sugar's Essex gastropub. Despite its arch name, the pub is authentically old – starting life in 1547, it's one of ye oldeste pubbes in Englande, and was the original of the Maypole Inn in Dickens's Barnaby Rudge – and is a huge, mock-Tudor-monochrome barn of considerable beauty, overlooking Chigwell School.
Walk through the side gates, though, and you're in Weirdsville, Arizona. The first thing you see is a bloody great equestrian statue. The rider's face, under a Saracen helmet, looks like His Lordship on a battlefield, about to fire somebody. Inside the doors of Sheesh, the black-and-white Tudor theme is given a mad modern interpretation: everything is black, white, black'n'white, zebra-striped, pedestrian-crossing-striped. The only colour relief is the golden cutlery. No really, gold cutlery.
You walk around in a daze, checking out the Leather Lounge, where the chairs are black mock-crocodile and the black-tile floor is buffed to such a shine, you can glimpse ladies' undergarments in them. In the main dining hall that was once the pub's dancehall, the waiter pointed out "the biggest mirror in Essex".
Because you've seen The Only Way is Essex, a guilt-making voice in your head tells you that anything slightly brash in design or vulgar in dress around here is "typically Essex". I fought against it but, inside five minutes, I'd clocked the bottle-blonde in the plunging black cocktail frock and shades, with her boyfriend in his powder-pink T-shirt and shorts. Were they heading for a cocktail party (at 2pm), a beach or a hot tub?
Sheesh used to be a kebab joint at the top of Queen's Road, Buckhurst Hill. Alan Sugar financed its move to the grander Chigwell High Road. "This area, between Chigwell, Buckhurst Hill and Loughton, is called the Golden Triangle," a local resident told me. "Because more properties change hands for cash around here than anywhere else in London." It's not all footballers and retired criminals, however – Lord Sugar himself lives barely 150 yards down the road. Why he elected to install a Turkish restaurant inside a dream of Tudor elegance I've no idea. Maybe he thought fine dining a bit pretentious for Chigwell. But while I went in assuming that the joy of people watching would compensate for the food, I was pleasantly surprised.
The menu is over-familiar, starting with dips, salads and squid, proceeding with grilled lamb, fish and chicken, finishing with baklava and yogurt. But at every point in the meal I was startled by how un-boringly every dish was prepared and presented.
We began with the dips; they came in long black dishes (did I mention all the crockery's black, too?) with the most delicious hot flatbread I've tasted outside Istanbul. Tarama was as light and pink as an angel's powder-puff, hummus was fabulously garlicky, cacik a creamily white cucumber dream. Two aubergine dips seemed over-generous, aubergine-wise, but a salad of chopped tomato, onions and herbs was marvellously clean-tasting. A stand-alone starter of squid, pan-fried with white wine, tomato and basil, was pronounced delicious, the squid so tender it was "like eating pasta".
On the black table, five large main courses on black plates were simultaneously plonked. A spindrift of chopped parsley lay on the outer rim of each like green snow. Such drama! Valerie's sea bass – a thuggish monster whose baleful eye regarded us with loathing – was simply grilled with salt, a squeeze of lemon and a long, seared chilli. Eating it, she said, was "like eating in the open air – I can taste the sea". Robin's grilled lamb chops were "exactly what you'd expect in a Turkish restaurant," though he meant "a Turkish restaurant in Turkey" rather than in Chigwell. Its accompaniment of spinach with nutmeg drew loud huzzahs. Angie's Tavuk Sis meant marinated cubes of chicken breast, wondrously tender, plump and juicy, wrapped in thin Turkish bread that resembled an Outpatients bandage. Albert's fillet steak was fine (as it damn well should have been at £24) but whoever made the sauce should have thought twice before serving uncooked, indeed raw, peppercorns. I ordered a kleftiko from the Specials list, and found it a ludicrously British version of the Greek staple, with potatoes instead of rice; but the lamb was falling-off-the-bone tender.
The puddings in Sheesh lacked authenticity (cheesecake? Spotted dick? Sticky date and toffee pudding?) but the baklava was a dense treat of honey and pistachio, and the yogurt with berries was an explosion of strawberries and redcurrants. At the end of this most peculiar banquet, everyone confessed, a little sheepishly, that the food had been far better than they'd expected on walking in. And also, that they wouldn't have missed this flamboyant display of Essex style for all the slingbacks in Basildon.
Sheesh, Ye Olde King's Head, High Road, Chigwell, Essex (020-8559 1155)
About £90 for two with drinks
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Joy of Essex
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