Mark Prescott, a young English chef, has just opened his first restaurant, the White Hart, in Nayland, on the border of Essex and Suffolk, a picturesque village already blessed with one fine restaurant, Martha's Vineyard. Mr Prescott's restaurant is set in a converted pub and serves good food at fair prices. Yet he says he is worried that customers will come expecting French food. Perhaps this is because he advertises himself on the sign out front as a Roux-trained chef.
To almost anyone with a television set, Roux means French food. It means those brothers, one tall, one short. It is their double act in monogrammed kitchen whites that gave Britain so many television programmes, newspaper columns, books and two of its first restaurants to win three Michelin stars: the Waterside Inn at Bray and Le Gavroche in Mayfair. Mr Prescott will know this far better than most. He spent so much time working for the brothers, he could be forgiven for tattooing "Roux-approved" on his forehead.
Now aged 33, Mr Prescott joined the Roux brothers at 19, working his first five years and some months with Michel at the Waterside Inn and the remainder at Le Gavroche with Albert. These are two of the most demanding kitchens in the land, and Mr Prescott rose to the top. At Le Gavroche, he became head chef alongside Albert's son, the younger Michel. The elder Michel obviously holds Mr Prescott in such high esteem that he is a co-proprietor of the White Hart.
Mr Prescott is assisted by his partner, Annie Cooper, a fleet-footed and kind young Englishwoman who cooks and, if needs be, will wait tables. The pair have their work cut out taking a French-style training, retaining its kudos and applying it to a village pub. Yet, aside from the sign, the first impression is of absolute Englishness. You enter through a small bar with wood-burning fire, then find a network of dining rooms with large hearths and simply-laid tables. The menus are short and simple: the offerings during a recent Sunday lunch service included roast beef and Yorks, breast of chicken with tarragon, confit of duck, and even the odd foray into exotic-sounding dishes, say a spiced Thai prawn salad, that, for some reason, bring Mark's & Spencer to mind.
Young staff are French and English, and very sweet, if clueless. The lunchtime I ate there, gentle confusion began in the small bar. The answer was to cut through the queue for drinks and present yourself in the dining room. Once there, if you order a Bloody Mary as a pre-meal drink, it may well arrive after the starter. As my meal progressed, customers at tables around and about were not so much being offered things as good-humouredly requesting them. The man at the next table kept asking if there was any chance of this, any chance of that. Good sir, there will be every chance of being ably served whatever you fancy once this squeaky new place hires the manager it so vividly needs.
But the kitchen is already ahead of the game, talent-wise. The food is good, some of it superb. Yet it is on the plate that this very English place suddenly takes on a Roux accent. Take, for example, the mashed potato crust of a fish pie, piped through a pastry bag and styled into an artful rope. Displayed in the centre one might find, as I did, a puff pastry biscuit in the shape of a fish. I think this sort of culinary chintz just a bit silly, but I find it touching, too. It is generous in its intent, there to amuse, please and impress.
As for the pie itself, this was entirely satisfying, and involved mussels, salmon, prawns, what tasted like crunchy bits of spring onion and other bits and pieces. While the top of the pie may have been a shade overwrought, the dish itself showed gutsy good sense.
A side order of what the waiter simply described as "greens" produced an impressive selection: bits of cabbage leaf, crispy mange tout, lightly cooked and strangely carved courgettes whose centres had been removed. Pride of place was reserved for a ramekin-shaped mound, more like a mousse, of (presumably) spinach. This spinach may have been mixed with other leaf vegetables because it didn't really taste of spinach. It lacked that invigorating iron punch. Whatever it was, it was more of a first course than a side dish, and incredibly rich. It would have received an A-plus in a chef contest. I liked it, but could not manage much. All of the vegetables were good, but only the cabbage was both simple and seasonal.
Mr Prescott says he is keen to employ local produce, and I believe him. There is certainly lots of good stuff about. This is farming country. There is great conventional produce, potatoes, cabbage, beetroot and the like, and a burgeoning movement to grow unusual varieties. For example, Joy Larkcom, who did so much to introduce pungent herbs, mustards and lettuces back into English gardening, farms nearby. There are the famous ports for fish, good smokeries and plenty of woodland with mushrooms and game. Mr Prescott already serves a "local game terrine". The one I tried was made with a mixture of duck and pheasant, and served with a splodge of chutney and small green salad. The terrine was too cold, but excellent: moist, the meat firm and not overspiced, not too liverish, nor high-tasting. The salad, a well-dressed and salted mix of frisee and oak-leaf lettuce was also good, if a bit Roux-issue.
A wine list touches the major styles, but is agreeably short, and democratically priced. As for desserts, evidently there is always a pudding involving chocolate on the menu, listed as "something chocolate". In my case, it was a pot au chocolat, topped with a creamy froth and served in a large espresso cup. This was almost insanely generous and tasted wonderful. In this instance, far be it from me to criticise Mr Prescott for being as devoutly Roux as it is possible to get.
At its best, the Roux imprimatur signals skill, not national identity. Mr Prescott's food is not French. French food is only found in France. From the roast beef and Yorks right down to the Thai salad, the food at the White Hart is English. And it is perfectly good. Its distinctiveness will depend on how much seasonality and local flavour Mr Prescott allows to seep inReuse content