There is a fashion among our political class for using their summer-holiday destinations to show solidarity with the common man. It was in this spirit that Gordon Brown – who, on becoming prime minister, forgot his main attraction to voters was his hatred of fashion – made a great show of visiting Southwold three years ago. Why exactly I cannot fathom. There isn't much to do. The pavements reek of Victorian virtue, and the Adnams brewery has a Soviet monopoly on the drinking dens, two qualities Mr Brown might approve of. But the landscape is flat, the beach unspectacular, the pier moribund, and – with one marvellous exception – the food otiose.
Mark's Fish & Chips, for example, does decent scampi but charges a crazy premium to eat in. After the seven-mile round trip walk to Walberswick (a shorter hop if you take a boat), that is a nuisance.
And before turning to the best restaurant here, I hope readers will forgive me for briefly excoriating the food at The Swan. This hotel, part of the Adnams empire, has helpful staff and does an excellent breakfast. But our dinner service was shocking. A tempura of bream came with a pathetic, damp cucumber salad. My pork belly was dry and affiliated to a lazily granular mustard mash. The pan-fried pork fillet (£19.75!) with black pudding and braised shoulder came with raw potato chunks drowning in shallot jus; and when sent back to the kitchen, returned having been put under the grill for five minutes. Piping-hot, gently rearranged – and still inedibly raw. A dark-chocolate jelly with orange sorbet tasted packet-fresh. At £34.95 for three courses and £28.95 for two, this felt like rip-off central: unforgivably bad food at monstrous prices. As if that wasn't bad enough, the menu boasts: "Every effort is made to ensure that we do not use genetically modified products," which is reason enough to go elsewhere.
What the hotel honchos should do is walk 300 metres to the other end of the high street. There, ensconced in the kitchen of Sutherland House, is a chef who, for the right price, might offer their salvation. Jed Tejada is Colombian, very shy, and according to reliable reports, a superb saxophonist. He started off doing the dishes here four years ago, and under the tutelage of head chef Dan Jones has risen to senior sous chef. Tonight, Jones is doing the pastry, and Tejada is in charge.
The walls in our part of the room are sparse, with blurred, nondescript portraits and fleur-de-lis patterns. Neither here nor there, in other words; and this draws attention to a short, simple menu that prints food miles and contains several inoffensive spelling mistakes. Everything other than the ice-cream is made fresh in the kitchen, there is a devotion to seasonal produce, and many of the groceries hail from a local seven-acre plot.
My girlfriend Charlie's roasted quail "ballontine" (sic) with confit leg, celeriac and "sort" (sic) boiled quail's egg (£7) is a complex but worthy starter. My pan-seared Scottish scallops (£7.50) are an ideal vessel for a spiced apple chutney, which tastes very much of spring, but a salty black pudding, very good in its own right, clamours too much for attention, both on the palate and on the plate.
A superb monkfish wrapped in Parma ham (£18), with herbful crushed potatoes that he should be teaching at The Swan, is so muscular it needs a strong counter-balance, which is duly provided by cauliflower florets and ham hock. But the dish of the night is a slow-braised belly of Blythburgh pork, from a few miles away (£18). A magnificent apple fondant brings out the best of the meat, and our old friend the black pudding returns too, this time a bold supplement rather than an angry impostor.
The wine starts at £18.25 a bottle, which is too high. But it tastes better for having been poured by Andy Rudd, the charming general manager who has a stake in the business and serves a generous gin and tonic. He seems a genial and loquacious fellow, and when I ask him to give our compliments to the chef, he sends out his shy young man to meet the guests. This seems traumatic for the prodigal Colombian, evidently a private chap uncomfortable in public. In fact, in that respect he rather resembles our former prime minister. But I would say that his cooking is the only thing that warrants Mr Brown – or I – returning to this soporific sliver of the Suffolk coast.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY HOME AND COOK 4 NEEDS HELP 5 DOES THE JOB 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE 7 GOOD 8 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Sutherland House, 56 High Street, Southwold, Suffolk, tel: 01502 724 544 Lunch and dinner, Tues-Sun (andMon from 1 April). About £90 for two, including drinks
Other fish to fry
East Row, Sandsend, Whitby, North Yorks, tel: 01947 893 424
Fish dishes prepared with a light touch using the local catch are the highlight culinary attraction at this especially friendly restaurant-with-rooms, right by the beach
Stane Street, Ockley, Surrey, tel: 01306 627430
Still the best fish in the south-east despite the land-locked location – this very reliable Surrey Hills inn inspires almost unanimously positive reports
225a West George Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 572 0899
Derek Marshall's mouthwatering fish and seafood dishes, plus brilliant service, earn this smart but unassuming city-centre basement the highest ratings