The Swan at Lavenham revisited

You may recall my not entirely successful previous visit to the Swan at Lavenham, resulting in a review with some constructive criticism and an exchange of emails with Mr John Morrell, Food and Beverage Manager, culminating in a kind offer, gratefully accepted, of a dinner on the house.

You know what was most disappointing last time?  It was the fact that I wanted so much to like The Swan.  It is a beautiful location in the heart of the perfect Suffolk town, it does so much that is right, its kitchen staff cook quality local ingredients with flair, the service offering is often theatrically professional… but they had an off-day.

The fact that the management and staff accepted the constructive criticism and learned from it speaks volumes for the gravitas they apply to the work of satisfying guests who will then apply good word of mouth and attract family and friends.  On such a buzz many a restaurant depends for survival, let alone success.

During lunch we debated what restaurants do when they clock AA Gill or Jay Rayner dining under a false name – do they provide additional courses or a bottle of vintage bubbly?  Do they waive the bill or stuff an envelope with a wad of notes under the dessert?  I sincerely hope not, because a place worthy of a good review should always live or die by its core product and service, day in day out.  I think this visit was actually much more representative of The Swan.  Reputation is all, but to attract customers back time after time you need more than anything to be consistent in your excellence.

Compared to the number of restaurants that evidently don’t give a monkeys and reheat whatever they can buy from a catalogue, establishments that do care should be revered and revisited.  Better by far to try restaurants that try to do it right and counter the curse of commoditised food, even if they fail on odd occasions in the process.  The Swan is exactly the sort of dining institution we should all support and encourage in preference to fast food joints and anywhere else that churns out food from the freezer to the plate via the microwave or deep fryer.

So… before I commence the review part 2, know this:  the opinions that follow are justified by the food and service, not merely because Mr Morrell and his team were treating us any differently to other guests or because our food was not charged; rather, this is a review solely on merit, and if criticism were due it would duly appear.  As it happens, there was very little worthy of criticism.

Cut to the chase, the offer was accepted and a sultry Spring day marked our return visit, along with the opportunity to give praise where praise is due.  This visit also marked a change of venue, from the slightly draughty brasserie to the Gallery restaurant, as fine a beamed interior as you’re likely to see anywhere.  It looked well-maintained and tastefully decorated, certainly in-keeping with the terroir of Lavenham.  The well-spaced tables were each adorned with a fresh tulip and the sort of crisp linen that marks an establishment with aspirations.  The cost of laundry alone is such that you can quite understand why restaurants these days prefer to offer scrubbed tabletops, so when you see proper table linen it is undoubtedly a touch special and worthy of note.  The quality of other fittings met with my companion’s approval, notably excellent curtains (Liberty?) and decent chairs that, like children, could be seen and not heard.

Front-of-house  staff were equally smart and well-scrubbed, tending towards the old school in preference to novices at the black art of waiting and serving, which again I class as a welcome and refreshing change.  Service was discreetly attentive throughout, but never absent at times of need, contrary to my usual theory that restaurant staff are all over you until the point where you want something, in which case they are nowhere to be seen.

The combined effect of these nice touches suggested The Gallery to be old-fashioned in the very best sense of the words: it is a relaxed place to eat, well-groomed without suffering a surfeit of its own self-importance.  Not quite down-to-earth, but neither the sort of place to intimidate diners wary of “posh” restaurants of yore, sometimes noted for a frosty disdain for a lack of class among the clientele.  Very few restaurants can afford to be so choosy about the nobility of origin of its customers, and equally they need to be warm and welcoming to one and all for fear just such a lapse in reputation.  Nevertheless, we used the correct cutlery and drank from the right glasses, just in case (I jest!)  Seriously, it’s a fine balance to strike, but achieved with a certain panache – not quite greeting old friends but offering bonhomie and conviviality alongside the respectful “sir” with which I was greeted.

Interesting to note that near to us sat a family with two youngish children, both of whom were quiet and superbly behaved throughout.  Credit to the parents but maybe also evidence that the kids were neither bored nor uncomfortable.  Other fine dining restaurants look very sniffily at children, but here they seemed to be welcomed, if not quite in the sense that continental restaurants go out of their way to attract families and make a real fuss of kids.

Best of all, a pianist played for the entire duration of our stay from her perch on the eponymous gallery.  She played a range of popular tunes, leaning strongly towards the Gershwin, and she barely stopping to breath or find the music for the following number.  This is the first time I’ve eaten to live music since a wonderful visit to the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho to see a hero of mine, Antonio Forcione, and I found it equally delightful.  We wondered whether she had been a professional pianist, since her repertoire seemed well within her capabilities.  It seems entirely in-keeping with the style of the Swan that the choice of entertainment was a very skilled player, striking very much the right note.

So to the aforementioned fine dining aspiration, which might be defined thus:

Fine dining restaurants are full service restaurants with specific dedicated meal courses. Décor of such restaurants feature higher-quality materials, with an eye towards the “atmosphere” desired by the restaurateur, than restaurants featuring lower-quality materials. The wait staff is usually highly trained and often wears more formal attire. Fine-dining restaurants are almost always small businesses and are generally either single-location operations or have just a few locations. Food portions are visually appealing. Fine dining restaurants have certain rules of dining which visitors are generally expected to follow often including a dress code.

I’d take issue with a few of those points, but clearly the atmosphere hit the mark here.  On the last point, we were dressed reasonably well, though without suits, ties or anything too stuffy.  At least one diner was wearing jeans, which did not seem out of place.  Given a wide demographic of guests, you could call the Gallery cosmopolitan in its reach.

This being my first meal out since being diagnosed with diabetes, I had to choose from the Sunday lunch menu with a little care, having already ventured half a pint of bitter in the bar.  It wasn’t too hard to pick a diet-friendly classic Greek salad followed by a sirloin of Suffolk beef, served pink.  My companion chose cured wild boar as her starter (curate cinghiale if you follow it back to Italian roots, though I don’t know if any wild boar roam the fields of Suffolk) and the same beef I had chosen, in preference to roast pork, trout and a tasty-sounding vegetarian risotto.

The Greek salad defied the cliche for most Greek salads, being a riot of colour and flavour.  Tiny pieces of diced tomato, cucumber and green and black olive vied with chunks of salty feta, chicory leaves, aromatic dill (a very favourite herb of mine) and a slightly sweetened dressing; a high octane Greek salad, you might say, one which may well have been closer to roots than some but was indeed a classic of its genre.

My companion’s only complaint was that her plate of cured meat salad came to an end, which is lavish praise indeed.  She also praised my deep-moulded, wide-lipped bowl and the asymmetric plate on which the starters were served, the latter shaped like a cross section through an ostrich egg; contrary to her usual preference for the symmetrical but pleasing to the eye nonetheless.

The beef roast was constructed vertically in the modern vogue, atop a mound of winter veg with roasts that looked a tad anaemic but tasted crunchy to one side and a fine and fluffy Yorkshire to the other, on which reclined a roasted sliver of carrot and some braised onion.  I’d have liked a small jug of gravy on the side, but an excellent horseradish proved the ideal condiment.

The beef itself was carved into tender tranches of perfectly medium-rare succulence.  My mother would have been less than happy with the pinkness but that’s her problem – she would have chosen the roast pork, had she been there.  Full marks to The Swan for serving the beef at its optimum condition, and don’t let anyone tell you it should be served differently!

Alas, I made do with water and failed to turn it into wine, but I did select for my companion a glass of a meaty and succulent (that word again!) Bourgogne pinot noir, a wine fit to match the fine local beef.  Had we been staying over in the hotel, I might have thrown caution to the winds and sampled a really decent bottle from the well-judged wine list, not to mention a fine whisky.

Desserts maintained the high standard, though the coconut and lime rice pudding with mango sorbet is not a dish you commonly see on menus.  From the brief taste I had it seemed to work, though the coconut was subtle and maybe some more robust flavours would have set the taste buds zinging.  No complaints about the raspberry brûlée though, other than that it was a perfect miniature and comfortably smaller than its supporting player, home-made chocolate chip cookies.  It offered the satisfying CRACK as the spoon came into sharp contact with the burnt sugar, yielding to gooey raspberry custard beneath.

Coffee was acceptable without being the best, and was, at £3.50 a head, distinctly the low point in terms of value for money.  Petits fours and a bit more oomph in the brewing would have helped, though I acknowledge my preference for coffee strong enough to stand a spoon up.  The thing is it’s easy to dilute but impossible to strengthen.

Coffee notwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mr Morrell and his team have scored a major success. I wish them well in delivering high standards to discerning diners henceforward. Furthermore, I have no doubts that Mr Morrell has instilled in the team that attention to detail makes all the difference, and that the pursuit of perfection is the only way to maintain high standards.

This was a very good meal so to set the record straight I’d be happy to recommend The Swan for an excellent meal out if you are out and about in southern Suffolk. But is The Gallery a fine dining experience?  Definitely! With still local competition from The Great House and other excellent restaurants in the Suffolk area, you can be assured that standards will remain high.

Best of all, my partner came out into the sunshine with a beaming smile on her face and declared herself to be replete and content.  More than that no man could wish for.

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