Hidden just off the M25 outside Cheshunt, a mere 45 minutes from central London, lies the Birch Community or (handle.silk.comet) as they also like to be known on the what3words website. What sounds like it could be an over-considered and incense-scented haven for wannabe hippies is in fact a beautiful reprieve – 55 verdant acres that guests have the freedom to explore at their own pace. There are elements of Birch that don’t make sense, but one thing they have done very well indeed is the Zebra Riding Club restaurant.
Named after former resident Lady Meux’s affinity for riding through London in a carriage drawn by the striped animals, the restaurant is housed in the property’s former stables. It bills itself as a kitchen led by nature, which reveals itself to be utterly true on the stroll there from the main house – a walk that takes you past the sizable vegetable and herb garden and the metaphor-inducing pigsty – but more on that later.
The cavernous space seems to have been plucked from every barn conversion-themed Pinterest board; all high ceilings, exposed beams and earthy tones. It manages to feel at once spacious yet cosy and perfectly suited to its Cotswolds-meets-Hackney setting. Removing the agony of choice, the Zebra Riding Club offers just three set menus – carnivorous, pescetarian and vegetarian. Each largely consists of the same dishes – the key difference sits with the main meal, and, most importantly, there is no requirement to opt for the same as your dining partner.
There is something uniquely peaceful about leaving your gastronomical fate in the hands of those who know what they’re doing. And you’re in very good ones here. Chef Robin Gill trained under Marco Pierre White and then went on to do a stint at Le Manoir au Quat’Saisons, before setting up his own spot – much-loved restaurant The Dairy in Clapham. The latter, a victim of the pandemic, closed down last summer, perhaps making way for Gill’s new venture here. And if our meal is anything to go by, that might be quite the shrewd move.
Nothing about the set menu seemed over-considered or rushed. Despite an obviously busy evening of continuous seatings, courses were well paced, and while our trouser buttons were straining by the end of it, it somehow never felt like too much – rather, just enough. The selection of snacks to kick off felt like a personalised take on crudites and dips, featuring taramasalata for the meat eaters, hummus for the veggies, crisp radishes, cured meats and pickles, house-baked porridge sourdough, and two delightfully compact asparagus, goat’s curd and preserved lemon tarts that tasted like spring personified. We could have quite happily continued pecking on this selection for the entire meal but, alas, there was more of Gill’s wonderful cooking to experience.
After such a lofty start, it would have been easy to coast through the rest, chucking out a few pretty but underwhelming dishes and rushing us out the door. The Zebra Riding Club, however, seemed almost determined to impress. The next course, a sort of Asian-inspired broth studded with fresh peas and grains and topped with a runny egg, was deeply flavoured, vibrantly salty and spicy thanks to the addition of XO sauce, and felt like a true celebration of the garden you walk past en route. We opted to add on the extra course – lobster for meat-eaters, white asparagus for vegetarians – and while delicious, we definitely could have gone without. The rich dish felt like an unconsidered interlude to what was an otherwise seamless menu.
After a necessary pause to rest our filling bellies, we moved onto the mains. The Old Bay-seasoned Swaledale pork loin seemed like an almost purposeful attempt to question my commitment to eating meat, following our earlier stroll past the cast of Babe to get to the restaurant, although I was assured the meat was not quite as home-grown as the vegetables. Luckily, I am well-educated on the origins of my food, and managed to squash any images of teacup pigs to enjoy what was a perfectly cooked piece of pork that cut like butter and melted in your mouth. The accompanying chimichurri had just enough of a kick, and the punchiness of the herbs worked alongside – rather than overwhelming – the natural flavour of the meat. Vegetarians got chargrilled fennel, another celebration of the garden outside, and a strong case for letting such produce shine, rather than attempting to emulate meat. A warm courgette salad on the side was one of those dishes where you wish you could harangue the chef for the recipe, the vegetables coated in a silky, citrusy emulsion that brought a refreshing element to the course.
We were well on the road to proclaiming we could never eat again when dessert was set down – a fact that Gill must be well aware of. Thus, it felt like more of a palate cleanser. Two impossibly crunchy-yet-fluffy canelés were devoured in seconds, the perfect base to mop up the grapefruit granita and yoghurt sorbet – a fresh punctuation to an invigorating dinner.
If you’re staying at Birch, a meal at the Zebra Riding Club only serves to highlight that holiday feeling. While if you’re visiting simply for the restaurant itself, it feels like a truly indulgent night out. If it weren’t for the myriad pottery, baking and sound-healing classes, Birch could bill itself solely as a gastronomic getaway – the restaurant is certainly good enough to hold up to that reputation.
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