The return of the prodigal

In which our correspondent returns to the bleached and briny landscape of her youth and discovers something new. The Crown and Anchor in the ancient Suffolk village of Orford may sound like a pub, but it is so much more.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's perverse. I spent most of my teenage years trying to escape from Suffolk, but nowadays, I find I'll do almost anything to get back there. The aloof villages, gorse-studded dunes and shingle beaches of that coastal stretch between Orford and Southwold exert a weird hold over the imagination. There's real magic in Dunwich, the town which was swallowed up by the sea, and now consists of a few stranded cottages; in the bustling Victorian holiday towns of Southwold and Aldeburgh; and even in the brutal forms of Sizewell's twin power stations, plonked down like giant Lego bricks on an otherwise featureless sweep of coastline.

It's perverse. I spent most of my teenage years trying to escape from Suffolk, but nowadays, I find I'll do almost anything to get back there. The aloof villages, gorse-studded dunes and shingle beaches of that coastal stretch between Orford and Southwold exert a weird hold over the imagination. There's real magic in Dunwich, the town which was swallowed up by the sea, and now consists of a few stranded cottages; in the bustling Victorian holiday towns of Southwold and Aldeburgh; and even in the brutal forms of Sizewell's twin power stations, plonked down like giant Lego bricks on an otherwise featureless sweep of coastline.

If you haven't visited the coastal flatlands of this part of England, there's now a very good reason to do so, with the opening of an outstanding new hotel in one of Suffolk's prettiest villages. The Crown and Castle in Orford is the latest venture from Ruth and David Watson, whose 20-year journey there has included stints at two of Suffolk's best-known foodie destinations (not a huge category, admittedly).

In the Eighties, they took over from Robert Carrier at the grand - and occasionally grandiose - Hintlesham Hall. Then, in the Nineties, they moved up-county to the smaller, funkier Fox and Goose at Fressingfield, where Ruth (who is also an award-winning food writer) developed the kind of eclectic menu, using carefully sourced ingredients, which, 10 years ago, was almost unheard of in a country restaurant.

The Watsons' purchase of the Crown and Castle fulfils their long- standing dream of creating the kind of seaside hotel - casual, tasteful, food-led - which exists in the imagination but is almost impossible to find in real life.

Orford isn't strictly on the coast - it lies slightly inland, up the estuary of the river Ore. But the presence of a working quay, with its fishing boats and smart yachts, not to mention the constant gunmetal shimmer of the North Sea on the horizon, gives the place an unmistakably old-fashioned, seaside atmosphere. Yachties, twitchers and seekers of tranquillity are all drawn to Orford, as are the seekers of oysters and seafood who frequent the village's famous Butley-Orford Oysterage smokehouse and restaurant.

The rebirth of the Crown and Castle, an historic smugglers' inn which had latterly fallen into the hands of marauders from Trusthouse Forte, gives food-lovers another good reason to make the pilgrimage to Orford.

Half-timbered and unremarkable-looking, it stands in the shadow of an impressively preserved Norman castle. Outside, a blackboard reads "children welcome - we like customers", a message which seems to stand in direct rebuke to the quayside pub displaying a "no children" sign on its door.

Inside, the visitor clocks the copies of Nova magazine in the reception area, the all-day bar menu offering local seafood, the broad smiles of the friendly young staff, and instantly recognises that here is a hotel run on the principle that its guests are the stars of the show, and not just an inevitable annoyance.

In refurbishing the lounge and restaurant, the Watsons have achieved a stripped-down, New England feel which is perfect for that bleached, briny landscape. Scrubbed, dark-wood floors seem designed to host the patter of small, sandy feet. Sprigged upholstery and wallpaper have been ripped out, to be replaced by plain burgundy seating and saffron-painted walls.

Bedrooms, which are still being refurbished, haven't been entirely de-sprigged yet, and still have a touch of the Trusthouse about them. But prices are low (a double room is £65), the bed-linen is luxurious, and the views across the estuary to the sea, and the enormous ships from Harwich and Felixstowe which plough along the horizon, are mesmerising.

At the tail end of a bank-holiday weekend, we were more or less the only guests staying at the hotel, but there was no shortage of sun-toasted diners in the restaurant, their contented chatter competing with a riot of early evening birdsong.

Chef Brendan Ansbro, formerly at the Fox and Goose, is in charge of the kitchen, but the menu bears the unmistakable hand of Ruth Watson, in professional tastebud-tempting mode. Seafood and meat are local, cheeses are from Neal's Yard, and bread is from the village bakery. For those who fancy a quick snack after a day on the beach, there's potted shrimps and local dressed crab with home-made mayonnaise. And for the more self-indulgent, there's griddled squid with Judion bean and merguez sausage casserole, or lamb's kidneys with black pudding bubble and squeak and mustard sauce.

Oysters are from the Butley Oysterage, of course. We started with a decorous half-dozen of them, their long, creamy finish spiced up with an oriental dipping vinegar, and the surprisingly successful addition of two densely textured sausage patties. A single, elegant crab cake, sporting a crust of almost Platonic crispness, was gently spiced with red and green chillis, and served with wafer-thin cucumber strips in a citrus vinaigrette, and a guacamole-style mayonnaise of avocado and coriander.

A main course of seized cod (the "seized" refers to the brief cooking time, rather than the method by which the chef obtained it) was tender to the point of milkiness; beneath it oozed a rich, golden disc of saffron and garlic mash. Chicken breast, from local free-range supplier Charlie Nash, was pan-fried and served in a meaty sauce lent texture by whole-wheat grains and tiny broad beans.

The dark, syrupy smell of a pleasantly un-sweet treacle tart hit the nose almost before the dish was out of the kitchen. Together with cheese, coffee and a £13 bottle of wine from the well-chosen list, it brought our bill to a very reasonable £30 a head.

It's a tribute to the new owners of the Crown and Castle that local drinkers haven't been driven out of its bar by the introduction of gastronomy and copies of Nova magazine. We joined a knot of weather-beaten old boys for a nightcap, and were riveted by their discussion of "leek moth" and other allotment-related problems. From the variety of vegetables under discussion, it sounds like Ruth Watson will need to look no further when it comes to drawing up next season's menu.

Needless to say, I'll definitely be returning to sample it. The combination of great food, welcoming hosts and those big, Suffolk skies is just too seductive to resist.

The Crown and Castle, Orford, nr Woodbridge, Suffolk (01394 450205). Food and drink served seven days a week, 11am-5pm, 7-9.30pm. Limited disabled access. All cards except Amex and Diners Club

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