Another in my series of Gastropub reviews, this one being pretty local to my gaff in Tiptree. The DuCane Arms (now known simply as the DuCane), situated in the tiny Essex village of Great Braxted, appears to have been a pub newly transformed into its current GP guise by present chef/patron Jonathan Brown, about whom there is some background and an overview of his philosophy on the establishment’s website. Sadly the previous history is a little disjointed but we do glean the following derivation:
“The name DuCane comes from the late Lord of the Manor Peter du Cane, Esq. of Coggeshall, who settled at Braxted in 1751, and was sheriff of the county and M.P. for Colchester in 1745.”
Mr Brown, meanwhile, has set himself high standards:
“The inspiration behind The DuCane as you see it today, is the realisation of a dream. Jonathan the Chef/patron, a local lad has hankered after opening a first class venue to provide a theatre for his cooking skills honed in some of the highest rated restaurants in the country. Offering discerning diners, tasty fresh locally sourced food that won’t break the bank, delicious wine, good beer and lots of banter to enjoy in an informal and convivial setting.”
A glance at the ALC menu featured on the DuCane’s website (among menus for every purpose, though the day menu and specials vary) shows ambition, and credit to the version in the restaurant, which pays homage to good local ingredients and their suppliers. However, I did wonder why the fish is sourced at Billingsgate when there is first class zingingly fresh seafood to be had as locally as Mersea Island, about which I have written recently.
The selection of dishes certainly seems a hybrid of audience-pleasing gastropub fare, classic French and British dishes, plush an occasional innovative Michelin-pushing item rearing its head, as you might expect when the website promises a “theatre for (Mr Brown’s) cooking skills.”
Some descriptions, while factual, have taken a tour of the block. This one is descriptive:
“Daube of locally reared beef slow braised with merlot and thyme, smoked bacon, button mushrooms and baby onions, topped with a puff pastry lid, horseradish mash.”
Yes, it gets the tastebuds tingling, but forgive me asking a silly question: would that dish not be a steak and mushroom pie to 99% of the population?
Restaurants often walk a fine line between fact and hyperbole in their menu descriptions, though thankfully the DuCane has resisted the temptation to go overboard into the realms of pretentious waffle, and to be fair, the menu, and especially the specials menu, has its interesting moments, of which more shortly.
As our party of three entered, early but in need of drinks, the immediate impression was of a comfortable and modern room in an old building, though not perhaps as warm and comfortable as it might be. The bar area might be improved by the addition of an open fire and inviting armchairs, for example, though lack of space might preclude either. I was wondering whether some soothing music might help the warmth of the atmosphere, though my hearing is clearly not up to scratch since I am told music was playing, but so discreetly that it did not register with me at all. I tried to imagine the impact on the ambience, were a jazz saxophonist playing solo in a corner somewhere, and felt that would help add some pizazz to the atmosphere.
We were greeted and served by friendly and efficient staff and given a table in a compact dining room. Other tables were close, but thankfully not too close – in London I suspect the owners would have crammed in a couple more tables to maximise their covers. The walls are lined with works of art for sale, though some in the corner of the bar are masked by an enormous and well-tended rubber plant. The walls are also adorned by handwritten slogans to encourage the diner but sound slightly like orders: “Sit long, talk lots, laugh often” being one such. Yes sir!
As the evening progressed, the tables filled. They do say that you can learn a lot about a restaurant by its clients. If so, the DuCane is eclectic in attracting different age groups and social aspirations; not quite county set but attracting a wide audience.
The ALC was supplemented by curry night specials, which proved popular and smelled excellent, though we stuck to the carte. Starters of confit duck and assiette of smoked and cured salmon both proved excellent choices, though I do take issue with the habit of dropping small splodges of sauce around the edge of the plate – a small puddle can be just as decorative and does allow the diner to taste properly with the dish. My starter was described online thus, slightly differently to the carte at the restaurant:
A bubbling mushroom pot, topped with crumbled blue cheese, herb breadcrumbs, tossed salad and pickled walnuts
It proved tasty, served with thick hunks of fresh bread, certainly an antidote to the usual garlic mushroom pots that have invaded menus everywhere, though was not bubbling by the time it reached the table. The crumble seemed to have crumbled into the bubbling pot, which detracted marginally from its appearance, though flavour is to me always the key component.
Our main courses all attracted praise: an aged char-grilled rib eye steak was correctly served bleu and proved meltingly tender and flavoursome. Its accompaniments, as per the website menu, were pretty good, though the “red wine and thyme reduction” was slightly anonymous and decidedly thin and watery rather than the anticipated thick and sticky reduction:
Char grilled Rib Eye of local Beef, red wine and thyme reduction, smoked bacon, chestnut mushrooms and baby onions, parsley mash, crispy parsnips
Fish and chips could have come with pea puree rather than salad garnish and more thick hunks of bread, but the batter was decidedly crisp and the fish (cod? The provenance was not recorded on the menu) moist, by a majority verdict of 2-1; the person whose dinner it was felt the fish was “watery” – though it looked tasty from where I was sitting. It was undoubtedly well-cooked, as were the chips, another topic on which I have strong feelings. They were perfectly crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, much to Mr Brown’s credit.
My other companion immensely enjoyed her aesthetically pleasing roast belly of pork, though still felt that it failed to hit the heights of my very slow Aga-roasted belly pork, which must be praise indeed since this was very tender. Thankfully the crackling crackled though deconstructed bubble and squeak (mash and shredded cabbage separated into layers) was not quite what the diner expected. The gravy was slightly short in supply, and the crispy parsnips provided with my steak were not delivered here.
Slow braised belly of Wicks Manor pork, bubble and squeak, rich red wine and sage gravy, crispy parsnips.
To wash down the food, I selected a fine and fruity Argentinian Malbec from a relatively short and surprisingly cheap wine list, given the usual standard of restaurant markups. The lingering berry fruits proved a fine accompaniment to the steak, in particular.
The main issue my party had with the meal was reserved for the desserts. A chocolate sundae was strong on an overly sweet chocolate sauce, and, in the eyes of the guest who chose it, short on ice cream. The creme brûlée, surely now the nation’s favourite dessert, raised the standard, but I was disappointed in the bread and butter pudding, which consisted of large chunks of baguette which had not soaked up the custard to leave a melting consistency, as my mother would have made it. It was also slightly bizarre that the small pot of pudding should be accompanied by ice cream on top, crême chantilly and a small pot of crême anglaise (custard to you and me) on the side, as if to compensate for the deficiencies of the bread & butter pudding.
However, I did enjoy the shot of limoncello recommended by the menu. Coffee was reasonable without being outstanding, though my companion was irritated to find sachets of sugar served rather than bowls – an aspiring restaurant, in her opinion, should never cut corners in that way.
By common agreement, the DuCane does a lot of things right and Jonathan Brown can clearly cook food with precision, flavour and artistry when the iron is hot. It’s a pity then that we all felt the whole was slightly less than the sum of the parts. As I started by saying about initial impressions the ambience is not quite there, though many are worse.
But the nub of the issue is attention to detail, like the sugar mentioned above, and the fact that the ALC menu folders did not all contain every sheet. To reach the pinnacle you must get every minute detail absolutely spot on; while the DCA is undoubtedly good, slightly poor peripheral vision detracts from the dining experience. Mr Brown sets high standards, so must be prepared to be judged accordingly.
That said, we have agreed to give the restaurant another shot, maybe for Sunday lunch one time, that being the very least it deserves.
PS. It is with a note of sadness that I add to this review that the Du Cane has now closed. It is a very difficult job to make a country restaurant pay, so my respect to Mr Brown and team for trying. I wish them well in their future careers and hope they can start again very soon.