I admit it, I booked a table at the restaurant within the Suffolk Food Hall thinking, "This will make good copy" – ie: the Food Hall is one of those places where a dear little mug costs £11 and you need to remortgage your house to purchase a leg of lamb. Eating lunch in a vast shop which overlooks a vast bridge over which juggernauts are thundering on their way to or from the port of Felixstowe – good to write about, less good to experience, perhaps.
The hall, opened in 2007 by a group of Suffolk farmers to showcase their wares, is admirable, but running a restaurant with flair takes a different skill set.
But the car park is full and the route through the food hall, the homewares, the plants and planters – and then the small workshops where cookery classes happen – reveals lots of happy people. The thrum coming from above is not off the nearby bridge, but the sound of contented eaters in the first-floor restaurant.
My guests wanted to go to Jimmy's Farm, a nearby enterprise of similar proportions – food, kids' play area, attractions, shop – as they know him off the telly. But the brilliant Tracey MacLeod reviewed Jimmy's earlier this year in our Saturday sister magazine, and we try not to test the patience of our readers.
So, no to Jimmy's but yes to the Cookhouse. And I'm very glad we do join the crowds this Thursday lunchtime, because it is terrific, more than a useful refuelling joint on the journey into the twinkier parts of the county. It is, I find out later, the current holder of the best on-farm restaurant in Britain.
The produce is as good as what's on offer in the cavernous food hall downstairs but magically much better value. The six of us eat vast amounts – and have local Adnams beers and a New Hall Pinot Noir rosé from Essex that could easily become the only way for me – and it works out at £25 a head. Almost everything on the wide-ranging menu (everything from bites such as rarebits and cod-goujon sandwiches to "a celebration of Broxtead pork") has a named producer, which I'm leaving out here for brevity, but the commitment to local and seasonal is clear.
My starter of beans on toast is, in fact, broad beans and sugar-snap peas on a thick wedge of granary toast slathered with herb-spiked cream cheese, a wild-garlic pesto and garlands of pea shoots (£5.50). It's a delightful summer dish which could only be beaten by Mr M's cheese, crab and onion tart (£6.50). This has the unmistakable not-quite-circular form of homemade; the pastry is crisp and buttery, the rich cheese and delicate crab work harmoniously and it scarcely needs the quivering, mustardy mayonnaise it comes with but, hey, we're on holiday…
Mr M Sr has a fried duck egg with brown shrimps, samphire and beurre noisette which is almost drowned by its last component, but the brilliant waitress Tabatha (all the staff are cheery and helpful) is quick to bring a doorstop of good brown bread to soak it up. Mrs M Snr, meanwhile, is coeliac and asks for a bunless burger – it comes most definitely inside a bun, but despite initial dismay it turns out that the kitchen made it gluten-free, so full marks for effort. The burger itself – thick, juicy and flecked with herbs – is all killer, no filler, with enamel pots crammed with good chips and even better coleslaw.
I have a similar crestfallen first reaction to my guest's when my fish pie arrives. "The Cookhouse" (£11.50) sounds promising but looks soupy. Worse, there's a distinct presence of tomato. But blow me down, I'm wrong yet again. The creamy goodness contains a variety of fresh-tasting fishies (I detect salmon, sole and smoked haddock) and the tomatoes, peas and leeks add texture and piquancy. The mash is fluffy as you like, with a rusty crust of Parmesan – I approve.
Pick of the puddings (all £5.25) is a mixed nut and salted-caramel tart with good vanilla ice cream, which is at once light and dense, moreish and borderline OTT.
As we roll out of the room, past the rather picturesque windows that show yes, that bridge, but also charming boats skittering up and down the estuary of the River Orwell, and back through the myriad retail opportunities, I think next time we'll park in Ipswich and walk. How else are we going to burn off that many delightfully acquired calories?
The Cookhouse, Suffolk Food Hall, Wherstead, Ipswich, Tel: 01473 786 616. £50 for two, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from August
At the launch of Gizzi Erskine's Healthy Appetite, food stalls recreated her recipes. Duck and watermelon is a killer combo.
Asked to create 150 meringues for niece's wedding. Found everything at this bakers' heaven, including electric-blue food colouring.
Rex & Mariano
This Soho fish restaurant has become a regular pit stop, with prawns in a variety of scrumptious ways.
Less healthy, but unmissable while at the seaside; the best of the summer at Maggie's Fish Market in Hastings.Reuse content