“O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene”
John Keats – from Ode to a Nightingale
Now this is a foodie evening I want to remember. Maybe not the absolute best meal as such but certainly up there in the top 10 occasions. This is perhaps an important distinction, since nobody dines out purely for the food but does expect an ambience, to be entertained, to come away feeling the elements conspired to provide a rewarding and memorable evening.
If you were looking for just such an occasion, you would start with location location location, and few locations are more splendid than Lavenham in Suffolk. It may be difficult to prise the sniffiest of food critics away from London, and when you do they tend to be sniffier than usual, but for the discerning customer eating out here is a joy. Standards are high because there is stiff competition between restaurants and gastropubs in these parts, and because locals do know and appreciate good food and wine.
There were plenty in evidence at the Great House, a distinguished building bang on the market square that has provided fine French dining and rooms of distinction for over 30 years under the ownership of Régis and Martine Crépy. I heartily approve of chef-patron Régis’s dedication in showcasing the best ingredients from Suffolk and East Anglia, and how the menu has evolved from classic French under his tutelage, taking in a range of influences (read more about his philosophy in the East Anglian Daily Times), though I’m told that the boutique hotel carries through the same dedication to excellence.
I’ve eaten at the GH once before, a summer lunch in the courtyard that certainly demonstrated the talent of the Crépy kitchen, so it was only a matter of time before I returned – and what better way than on a special South of France tasting menu with matched wines. As the GH website puts it:
“An enticing menu showcasing exciting flavourful dishes
with a specially selected range of wines presented by Charles Eaton from Nethergate Wines“
The menu certainly sounded inviting without being over-fussy – and thereby in close accordance with my memories of dining in the South of France:
South of France Wine Tasting & Dinner
Canapés – Appetisers (Crémant de Limoux Brut, Hecht & Bannier)
Boneless red mullet fillet, Spiced ratatouille, tomato cloud (2014 Coté Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc Domaine de Tariquet)
Spring English lamb rack, mixed crushed and whole peas, truffle oil potato gratin, Coloured peppers (2006 Saint Chinian Hecht and Bannier)
South of France cheese selection, Grape juice jelly, Celery stalks (Maury Grenat fortified wine)
Basil lemon tartlet, Rosemary ice cream (2008 Saussignac Chateau Miaudoux)
The dining room(s) are coolly modern but retain period features to good effect. The overall effect is comfortable without being outrageous in any particular. Fresh flowers and a delicately neutral colour scheme deliver a classy appeal, over which someone (Martine?) has evidently spent a great deal of time and attention.
Service proved swift, efficient and effective throughout, supplemented on this occasion by a master of wine ceremonies in the form of Mr Eaton, who selected the matched wines for the occasion and did a great job in both cases; his description of the wines unquestionably added to the sense of occasion.
As we arrived, the first surprise was to be placed on a table with another couple. One expects this at The Company Shed, for example, but not typically at a fine dining restaurant. Any trepidation soon evaporated, for the couple concerned were charming and delightful company throughout – and hopefully found us likewise. As it turned out, these good people were locals, knew Regis and were on first name terms with the Maitre d’, and as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their food as we were, which in the deconstruction of these dishes proved a useful sounding board.
This proved helpful with the canapés, since no clues were provided. A tiny bowl and a tiny glass sat atop a large metal-topped bowl, separated by what looked like a cheese straw. To the left a glorious rillette packed with meaty, oniony goodness swam in a smooth green purée from beneath a dab of what might have been horseradish cream but probably wasn’t. To the right, a ball of melon was skewered over the glass, in which sat a frothy green liquid your childhood memories would associate with Jekyll turning to Hyde. We picked up the fresh-tasting melon but also hints of fennel and other flavours in sweet, rich mouthful.
The crémant served with these amuse bouches proved zesty, yeasty and the perfect pick-me-up with which to start the evening, which the more than ample service refilled unasked at regular intervals. Our companions waxed lyrical about a champagne evening at the GH, where the fizz flowed with gay abandon. How refreshing it is to find that M. Crépy disowns the stinginess associated with many a restauranteur, and how he is rewarded for it with customer loyalty. Luckily, and wisely, neither couple were driving.
If the crémant was good, the next wine, a high quality Domaine de Tariquet, was truly a revelation – one of those wines whose dazzling floral bouquet you could happily drink in all evening without the need to sample. It bore as much relation to supermarket chardonnay/ sauvignon blancs as vintage Krug does to paint stripper. This truly was a beaker full of the warm south that I could gladly repeat, and often.
It was matched with a sublime fillet of red mullet, placed delicately above a block of ratatouille deconstructed from the essence of tomato, here served as a “cloud” of flavour that can only come from the lengthy process of hanging tomatoes in muslin and allowing the juices to seep through over time. It proved a perfect fish course and a sure fire memory of eating mullet BBQ’d over charcoal in a cut-down oil can.
For the meaty main we enjoyed sliced English lamb cutlets (perhaps better than their French equivalents), arranged vertically over stewed peppers and a playful ring of jus and truffle oil. On the side were served some minty new season peas and a proper gratin, served in a cake with a mille feuille of minutely sliced potatoes. Proper cooking, in other words, though my companion felt her lamb was just a tad overdone. Mine certainly was not, nor that of the neighbour to my right. Maybe she got the cutlets at the end of the rack? Quel dommage!
The 2006 Saint Chinian Hecht and Bannier was every bit as meaty as the lamb, a rich and powerful combination of three grape varieties, though it was the blackberry nose of the syrah grape that had our new friend in raptures. “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth” as Keats so aptly put it.
By the cheese course, my companion began furtively swapping glasses around so I got most of her share, which was no bad thing either. The Maury Grenat fortified red wine was intense and a neat antidote to the saltiness of the cheeses. Not sweet to the tongue, but with fine length and underlying sherry notes tingled on the tongue.
As with the canapé platter, a description of all the cheeses would have been welcome, so I can’t tell you which were selected for us, though they were all in prime condition and delicious. The goat’s cheese may well have been a slice of Sainte Maure de Touraine, the blue possibly a sliver of Bleu d’Auvergne, though as yet I’ve not identified the delicious crusty white, at least not to cheeses from the south. Homemade grape jelly worked a treat with it, even if the crackers were not homemade – they were pretty much the only component in the whole evening that was not homemade.
The penultimate food treat was a dessert plate, comprising a miniature tart base topped with a frothy lemon and basil mousse, rosemary ice cream (though my companion thought lavender might have been a more sympathetic companion) and the odd splodge of flavours. It was paired with a Saussignac Chateau Miaudoux, a dessert wine with the vim, vigour and mouth refreshing qualities you would expect from organic producers in south-west France. A delightful strawberry petit fours arrived on a spoon, though I may have missed the coffee to go with it. Tant pis!
We stumbled over the road back to the Angel (of which more in another review) deeply satisfied and with the sure knowledge we had done what everybody pays good money for when they dine at a glorious restaurant – we had made memories. I fully expect that in a few years we will be saying to one another, “do you remember when we went to the Great House….?” It would be lovely to pay M. Crépy another visit sometime, but then there is the eternal dilemma – so many restaurants to sample and review, so little time. Win the lottery, nothing for it!
PS. Response from M. Crépy:
Dear Mr Millward – thank you for your mail and the review. I like your style – it is a well written piece indeed. The “canapés gap” was filled with the menu (see below). The “cheese gap” should not have happened and I am very sorry about this. It is my mistake as the service should have told you what the cheeses were.
- Roquefort Papillon
- Buche cendrée du Sud
- Tomes des Bauges
Once again, thank you very much for your write up and I am very much looking forward to welcome you on another occasion.
Very kind regards
Galia melon soup, bacon espuma,
Tuna rillette, cucumber, olives