You may remember I have reviewed my most local decent restaurant, the Blue Anchor, before. In fact, I’ve eaten there several times, including at least three breakfasts. My review might have been seen as a touch sniffy about some points, if quite warm overall.
Fact is, I’m quite sure London reviewers, if ever they got as far as rural Essex, would hate the BA for its aspirational modern English bistro-style cooking for not hitting the absolute heights and staying within the boundaries of Essex dining tastes. Not as classy as Milsoms or Le Talbooth or the Great House, for example, but then the costs and risks associated with fine dining are unquantifiable.
On this occasion we dined out with a Groupon offer, which clearly is designed to drum up business on the quieter evenings with a restricted menu that combines the traditional (prawn and crayfish cocktail, ribeye steak) with the casual trendy stuff (burger, chicken burger), and tacks on a glass of wine or a bellini into the package. Said critics would be sneering down their pencils at that, but from a restaurant perspective it makes a lot of sense.
However, before starting on the menu, it’s worth pursuing my gripes from the first Blue Anchor visit. At the time I deplored the use of halogen bulbs on the very low 15th Century ceilings, which meant I was dazzled by the lights, some areas of the dining room were like a floodlit football pitch and others were shrouded in gloom. To be honest, the Blue team don’t seem to have taken this on board. Yes, there are chandeliers with lower level bulbs at intervals (being set so low they look slightly odd), but the lighting is still not right, and does not conjure up the best ambience for the delightful dining room. By daylight, the place looks more inviting by far, but by night it should be conducive rather than a distraction.
This menu is not the best way to judge the capabilities of BA’s kitchen, but they do at least include a cheese board now. My partner chose the aforementioned variant on the 70s prawn cocktail to begin, which to my palate seemed a touch watery, though with pre-frozen prawns (they invariably are) it’s very difficult not to leave excess water. This is one reason why fresh shrimps from the UK coast are a good alternative, and indeed crayfish fresh from Scottish waters. She did enjoy it though – maybe the Marie Rose could have been sharper, but it was enjoyable.
I chose soup as a starter, which in the worst establishments is straight from a catering carton but which can be a garden of delights, as with the Compasses at Pattiswick, for example. In this case, it was curried parsnip, a soup I’ve made myself before now. It certainly balanced the spices well and included plenty of pureed sweet root veg, though a touch of cream in the recipe would have improved the finished results. The “artisan bread” did not come up to expectations though – it looked and tasted more like a commercially-produced crusty cob than lovingly hand-made.
For mains, the lady chose the chicken sandwich, complete with fries and wasabi slaw, where I went for ribeye, triple-cooked chips, tomatoes, garlic butter and a “surf and turf” touch in garlic prawns. The latter were meaty, not to say a bit tough through marginal overcooking (the difference between perfect and shoe leather is but a few seconds), though my steak was everything I could have asked of it – tender, succulent, rare and well-seasoned.
One mushroom, a few vine tomatoes and a scattering of rocket seemed perfunctory accompaniments, but the real comparison is in the chips. My jenga blocks and the lady’s fries were both fat, but were different: mine were quite soft and not crispy, where hers were more like coated fries. Mine were undoubtedly home made, where hers probably were from a freezer pack into the frier.
She enjoyed her moist and tender chicken, left the top half of the bun, and ate most of the wasabi slaw, which was certainly not a rip-snorting blast of horseradish heat, but did convey a subtle whiff of wasabi. Was there a point in adding wasabi to coleslaw? It seems one of those arbitrary mixtures that add little value, and certainly don’t compliment the main feature – though I accept others may disagree on that.
Desserts, over and above the Groupon deal, were the best bit. We chose to share a selection of small desserts, which proved a very wise choice: Rocky Road sat on the plate amid a red berry meringue to one end and a lemon syllabub (or similar at least) to the other. It was a joy to behold!
In short, I expect I shall return to the Blue Anchor at regular intervals, especially because it is close to home. It’s not the best of its type in Essex, though not bad either. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, that’s not my intention – but I do think their breakfast, like all English breakfasts, is probably the best meal of the day on these isles. That particular cliché was said with good cause!