Osip, Somerset: A distraction-free theatre for brilliant British food

Ed Cumming takes a seat at the old ironmonger’s shop in Bruton, a gorgeous little restaurant from Michelin rising star Merlin Labron-Johnson, where the food is neither too much nor too little

Merlin Labron-Johnson made his name at Portland in Fitzrovia, which opened in 2015 when he was just 24. The hero dish there was a wild-game pithivier, but all the food was generally bold and accomplished. It impressed the critics, the public and eventually the Michelin judges, who made Labron-Johnson the country’s youngest starred chef. He followed it up with the nearly-as-lauded Clipstone, with similar food with a few rustic riffs, including a much-discussed plate of calf brains on toast.

After dabbling with a new Mayfair private members’ club, the Conduit, which closed last year, Labron-Johnson has turned his attention to a different kind of challenge. Osip is in an old ironmonger’s shop on the high street in Bruton, the market town in Somerset and epicentre of the bouji scene that has sprung up around the Hauser and Wirth gallery. Think Chipping Norton with more kaftans and marginally less Clarkson. Range Rovers trundle through streets lined with boho clothes shops, galleries and boutique hotels in restored Georgian buildings. Osip has a sister deli, the Old Pharmacy, next door, but you hardly notice either building until you’re inside them. This is not a town given to garish displays of ornamentation.

Inside, it’s a calm, light space more like an art gallery than most restaurants

Inside, too, they’ve swept the decks. It’s a calm, light space with a handful of tables, more like an art gallery than most restaurants. The walls are covered in white tiles up to the picture rail. Above them are mirrors and branches of dried foliage hanging like vegetarian riffs on hams in a tapas bar. Duck-egg blue banquettes run along one wall. Rough-china crockery, collaborations with various ceramicists, echoes the wall tiles. The textures save the space from accusations of austerity. If the plan is also to create a distraction-free theatre for the food, it works. The menu describes itself as “farm to table”, with ingredients from Labron-Johnson’s own allotment as well as the usual array of high-end suppliers, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is one of those gaffs where you’re expected to revere the unadorned beetroot. There is plenty of cooking. Really good cooking.

The set menu is served as a surprise, a sequence of dishes emerging on the heels of a punchy, finely balanced rhubarb negroni. Two little bouquets of salad leaves, their bases held in slivers of kholrabi, appear like the decorations from a miniature wedding. They’re followed by a bright, sunny carrot soup, its surface gently foaming, with two carrot financiers heaped with grated Westcombe Red, the nutty, grassy, ur-Red Leicester.

A mushroom and hazelnut cookie with a hazelnut cream and shaved chestnut mushrooms: a fine and delicate way to begin the meal

Only then does the bread arrive, a four-quartered brioche warm and springy from the oven, piled with blackened rosemary, served with duck prosciutto and herby butter. Then the fish, sweet-fleshed morsels of fresh trout with a smoky cream and a darkly fishy jelly, loosely carapaced with fine slices of oca root. After that, a luminous deep green flying saucer of wild garlic ravioli. Ostensibly the main course is a thick slice of lamb, heart-pink and tender, served with a single fat stalk of asparagus, blackened by the heat from the coals, But this is more of an ensemble performance than a star turn. These are flavours Labron-Johnson has played with before, and it shows. There’s not a bite out of place.

The menu describes itself as ‘farm to table’, with ingredients from Labron-Johnson’s own allotment

Osip has not struggled for customers, despite the on-off opening, and especially not since it won a Michelin star in January. The choice was mildly eyebrow-raising at the time, not least because the restaurant had only been open for a single highly disturbed year. Six months on, it’s beyond question. These are British ingredients, prepared by a British chef, yet there is a poise to Osip that feels like it has come from elsewhere. Europe, probably. The food is not overly fiddly, nor try-hard macho, not too much nor too little. The service is attentive but relaxed, administered by a team who seem pleased to be there. No mean feat in these days when it is a seller’s market for restaurant staff of all kinds.

The price is £69 for the food – there’s a shorter menu du jour for £45 – and another £50 for the wine. We’re offered one add-on, a cheese profiterole, which the whole table leaps at. After the other dishes we felt we could trust him with a parmesan profiterole. By that point he could have offered us a pot of gravel and I’d have posted a #nom picture on Instagram. To finish things off, there is a party trick, a vacherin of strawberries made with creamed and sweetened baked potato: smooth, rich and surprising. 

Labron-Johnson says some diners arrive under the impression the restaurant is named after the Soviet Acmeist poet, Osip Mandelstam. Although Merlin is the son of a poet and a curator, the reality is more indirect: Osip is his middle name. There’s something enigmatic about the word. It’s apt for this gorgeous little restaurant, where there is a lot going on beneath all the elegant surfaces.

Osip, 1 High Street, Bruton, Somerset, BA10 0AB | 01749 813322 | osiprestaurant.com

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