The Lion at Leavenheath, under new management since 2013, sits bang in the Essex/Suffolk golden triangle, north of Colchester. It sits in a prime location, right on the road to Sudbury, but faces stiff competition from the many fine gastropubs in that area, such as a personal favourite of mine, the Anchor at Nayland. To a pub, these establishments have received makeovers in recent years, have gained ambitious young chefs and make every effort to tread a very fine line between pushing at the boundaries to improve standards while not alienating the traditional pub trade either in menu or price.
The Lion has indeed been made over and takes a pride in its appearance, judging by the fact that I was politely requested to move my car so the gardener could trim the front hedges. The interior, set out in two largish dining rooms, had clearly benefited from quality fixtures and fittings to complement the beams, sturdy yet comfortable seats and voguish scrubbed wooden tables. Not quite how it might once have been in the days of a local boozer, but well acquitted for family dining.
On this occasion I brought my mother, who despite recent close encounters of the medical kind and the consequent restriction of her appetite, is ever eager to try new things – though I still chastise her for preferring overcooked steaks – evidently a generational thing. She drank a dry white (unspecified) while I enjoyed a decent pint of well-kept Adnam’s Ghost Ship, followed by the tap water correctly offered up front by a welcoming and professional front of house manager. The only mishap in the smooth running proved when I asked for the wifi password, which I was obligingly given but sadly it failed to work!
We were presented effectively with four sets of choices: a specials board, a lunch set menu (soup, fish & chips, ploughmans etc….), à la carte and, keeping up with the trendy set, a grazing menu comprising sharing boards and other nibbles. No doubt the real dining is reserved for the carte and specials, so it was slightly to my chagrin that mum decided to graze instead, and thereby not give the kitchen a full workout.
This took the form of two starters and a lazy platter of “tapas” – which were tapas only in the sense that they were small plates, not because they were authentic Spanish dishes made from scratch. Indeed, the stuffed peppers, broad bean crisps and hummus were almost certainly ordered in, though mum approved of mediterranean-style bread.
Our other two dishes were much the more interesting, though the menu description of “asparagus with goat’s cheese custard, crispy shallots, crushed hazelnuts” did it a slight disservice. Fresh, seasonal Essex asparagus is what everybody in these parts should be eating at this time of the year, and lightly chargrilled is the perfect way to eat it, so far as I’m concerned. The cheese sauce, served in a miniature saucepan, might differ from the more usual hollandaise or poached egg, but worked just fine – I just didn’t need it to be described with the distracting title of “custard.” It also made for a fine dipping sauce.
Chicken skewers were homemade and competently done, but served with salad garnish and what amounted to a peanut chutney rather than a more authentic satay sauce provided a more homely translation of the Thai favourite. Full marks for trying though it didn’t quite work as well as the chicken.
Desserts were popular with both parties. Mum sampled a raspberry and marscapone cheesecake with mint sugar, where I ventured a marginally more interesting coffee pannacotta, served in an identical miniature saucepan with warm chocolate sauce to create a virtual cappuccino. Full marks for the texture of said pannacotta, even if the coffee flavour could have been stronger. The chocolate sauce went down well with both of us, avoiding the temptation of being over sticky and/or sickly.
Noticeable is that while the full menu prices reflect gastropub aspirations, most of the prices at The Lion are kept well within the pub grub bracket, thereby to avoid negative comparisons with downmarket competition – though the risk is trying to be all things to all people. The Lion’s USP is not clear, in the way that the Anchor has its own smokehouse – so maybe a braver choice would be to go all the way and head for fine dining, but that route requires a loyal customer base prepared to pay full prices.
Decisions, decisions… but clearly they are capable of providing fresh-made food from quality raw materials, so this needs testing out. I need to return to sample a full dinner, all the better to compare against other nearby gastropubs, though a fish and chips at a nearby table did look like the business. Watch this space!