It's Monday lunchtime, and in country pubs across the land, under-employed staff are polishing glasses and staring into the middle distance. But here in Suffolk, a newly opened pub on a quiet rural road is doing brisk business.
The place vibrates with the unmistakable static of anticipation more usually found at a big restaurant opening. And that's because many of the lunchers here have made a special pilgrimage, drawn by the reputation of the pub's chef-proprietor, Madalene Bonvini-Hamel. She doesn't appear on TV, and hasn't a cookbook to her name (yet). But her food blog, The British Larder, an "inspirational recipe diary" chronicling her obsessive love of cooking and eating, has won her a big enough fan base to encourage her to launch a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
South African-born Bonvini-Hamel, together with partner, Sugar Club graduate Ross Pike, has bravely given up her day job as a development chef, and taken over a roadhouse a few miles from the Suffolk coast. They aim to give their fans a chance "to taste and touch what you see on the British Larder website".
Their menus, which change daily and draw heavily on the region's abundance of quality suppliers, artfully steer a course between traditional pub fare and the more ambitious dishes documented on the blog. The remodelled pub has been gutted and decorated in the kind of unshowy good taste – all sombre heritage paint tones, tongue and groove panelling and exposed brickwork – which is easy to take for granted until you glimpse the last surviving trace of hellish swirly carpet in the unmodernised ladies' loo.
A small bar area serving Adnams beer and superior bar snacks ensures that it still feels like a real pub rather than a restaurant in mufti, while the lunchtime menu ranges from sandwiches through to roasts with all the trimmings.
A long wait for our starters was repaid by a quartet of dishes which produced a rapt chorus of "oohs" and "wows!". Everything looked exquisite, with drizzled sauces and filigreed herb shoots giving a polish to even the simplest fare. Swoonily creamy celeriac soup came swirled with herb oil, while a dainty scroll of pea shoots adorned an open tart of caramelised beetroot and airy, whipped goats' cheese.
The fine visual sense extends to the tableware; we admired the hand-thrown bowls and slate platters. A heavy wooden paddle supported the lavish assortment of smoked fish that comprised the "Orford smoke house experience". A heap of silky smoked salmon dressed with caperberries, a bowl of shell-on smoked shrimps, a kilner jar of smoked trout pâté – simple components, elevated by the elegance of their accessories.
Best of the starters was a sizzling tranche of pan-fried mackerel, its golden skin crisp, the flesh melting, surrounded by a tracery of herb shoots and scattering of peas and shelled broad beans.
Those shelled beans were called to account, when another long wait for main courses had us pondering the slower-than-acceptable download times; is that kind of attention to detail compatible with the hurly-burly of a busy pub service? Waiting staff are numerous and efficient; the delay clearly emanated from the kitchen, where Bonvini-Hamel was, unusually, cooking solo.
Our mains, when they eventually appeared, proved that she is an intuitive and gifted chef (she trained with Rowley Leigh, and worked in the Gordon Ramsay empire for many years). Only one choice – some dense and heavy pea-fritters with a mushroom ragu – was less than first-rate. Big, clear flavours characterised a dish of pan-roasted hake, with steamed clams, roasted tomatoes and a seasidey tangle of samphire, in a chervil-scented white wine sauce. Perfectly poached salmon with lemon crème fraîche was a more delicate pleasure, while chicken Caesar salad was deconstructed into its separate elements – silverskin anchovies, slices of roasted breast meat (from nearby Sutton Hoo) , springy leaves with a mini kilner of dressing and as a little extra, a ramekin of tarragon-fragrant potted chicken.
With a couple of shared puddings, including an ambrosial goats' milk panacotta with merlot-steeped blueberries and orange polenta shortbread, we paid around £25 a head, which felt like excellent value for food this good. Before we left, we coaxed Bonvini-Hamel from the kitchen to share her tips for cooking mackerel. Her enthusiasm bodes well for the cookery school planned as phase two of the project.
The British Larder was only a few weeks old when we visited, so the neophyte restaurateurs can be forgiven if they're struggling to cope with the transition from writing recipes to turning them out at speed on a daily basis. Assuming Bonvini-Hamel can crack that, I predict blog-to-riches success for this foodie Girl With a One Track Mind.
The British Larder, Orford Road, Bromeswell, Suffolk (01394 460310)
Around £25 each for three courses, before wine and service
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Succulent Suffolk
Trinity at Crown and Castle Hotel
Market Square, Orford (01394 450205)
Awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand and two AA rosettes, the game dishes, like guinea fowl (£16.50), are a must.
30/31 Churchgate St, Bury St Edmunds (01284 760623)
Maison Bleue offers French cuisine – and seafood – at its best. Try the Dover sole (£26.95) or halibut (£15.95).
The New Roundhouse
Thorington (01502 478220)
The father and son team here offer local seasonal produce and a simple menu, highlighting the quality of their ingredients.
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