The Swan at Lavenham

Can you ever imagine a more perfect venue for lunch on a Bank Holiday Sunday than the Swan at Lavenham?  The most gloriously chocolate box Suffolk town, of which the centrepiece is a beautiful half-timbered hotel, pub, restaurant(s), conference centre and more besides.  Inside and out The Swan looks the part, including the beautiful bar with its array of whiskies and the preserved World War II inscriptions on the wall by USAF personnel.  The loos are sublime, truly the best loos I’ve encountered for some considerable while!  The Gallery restaurant, which I have not visited, looks on the website to be a glorious medieval banqueting hall.  And the Brasserie is a cool room in its own right, despite not being remotely like the French definition of a brasserie.

In this context it is bitterly disappointing to have to report a less than satisfactory dining experience.  No, worse than that given that the Swan does make a sincerely effort to cook and present high quality fresh ingredients with flair.  I truly wish this could have been a happy ever after review.  Alas not to be!

Initial impressions were however excellent.  A drink of decent ale in the bar, added to the restaurant bill, a chance to relax on a comfy leather sofa.  The first problem came with being shown into the brasserie restaurant, which makes a feature of al fresco dining on the terrace – not that we were offered that choice, but were shown to a table in front of the open doors.  My companion found this to be draughty, so elected to move to the other side of the table.

The fact that this was an issue, even on a warm sunny day, had apparently not occurred to the waiter who showed us to the table.  A minor point but perhaps ominous in view of subsequent events – that and the fact that the table was sticky, possibly due to melting wax polish than lack of cleaning.

Ordering is a tricky choice given a menu that sounds mouthwateringly tempting – though labelling it with that adjective on your website is probably asking for trouble too.  Despite being tempted to order an array of starters, tapas-style, we eventually plumped for our choices, mine including rib-eye steak.  Cue this exchange:

  • Waitress: “Didn’t anyone tell you about the steak?”
  • Me: “No, why?  What’s wrong with the steak?”
  • Waitress: “It’s sirloin, not rib eye.”
  • Me: “Oh in that case I’ll try (prompting from companion) haddock and chips.”

Another slight glitch in communication, maybe?  At any rate, the starters arrived after a delay, maybe 10 minutes.  I had overridden my temptation to go for the pan-fried squid and squid ink risotto with gremolata in favour of my vast weakness: charcuterie.  Well, that and cheese, though as you will later discover we never got as far as the cheese course.

But let’s start with the good news.  My companion began with “Scotch Egg with a Bacon and Black Pudding Salad, Mustard Vinaigrette.”  This dish, served on a platter that was at least 75% clean white rim and 25% bowl, proved to be a sublime version of the English breakfast salad innovated by Gary Rhodes in the 80s.  The egg yolk was soft and unctuous, contrasting with a deliciously crisp breadcrumbed exterior, and matched with tasty morsels of bacon and black pudding on a bed of salad.  To die for, as the cliché has it.

I’d like to have said the same of the charcuterie, but it also displayed evidence of lack of thought.  The cured meats and salamis were presented nicely on a wooden platter, followed by breads in a basket.  However, no plate arrived on which to assemble one with the other, and in any case the butter was fridge-cold and well nigh impossible to spread.

But more than that, if you ordered a charcuterie platter in France or Italy, say, it would probably come with a slug of fruity olive oil, maybe shavings of cheese and a confit tomato.  Here it was dry meats, dry bread and cold butter.  Some of the raw materials were admittedly of fine quality, notably an excellent carpaccio of smoked venison, but the chef seemed to have missed a trick to present a ten out of ten dish rather than the 6/10 it turned out to be.

This was not the last trick he missed, either.  After the starter we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And noticed that people who had come in after us seemed to be getting starters and then main courses.  Had they really forgotten us altogether?  Had we done something to offend the staff?  Did we have BO?  Attempts to attract the attention of staff proved futile, since they seemed much more attentive to those outside.  I waved my arms in front of a waitress coming in from the terrace, but she marched straight past me in the direction of the kitchen as if I were the Invisible Man!

We had arrived in the restaurant for our 12:30 booking, but at nearly 2pm and still without our main courses a waitress finally came over to apologise and to say our main courses would arrive shortly.  Upon expressing mild disappointment and asking her to agree that something had gone badly wrong in the kitchen she acknowledged failure and went away, tail between her legs.

At long last the main courses arrived, and not long afterwards the manager arrived too, profuse in his apologies.  It seems that with our order something went wrong so the chef rejected the output and our order joined the back of the queue (not immediately rectified, you notice.)  Would we like free desserts?

By this time I think we both wanted to be out of the restaurant without delay, so when our bill finally turned up it was with the value of two desserts removed from the cost – but compared to the disappointment of having our relaxing lunch spoiled that gesture seemed almost irrelevant.  By then the spell had been broken, the theatricality that accompanies a great performance by a restaurant just as it does on the stage.

The real point is that if there was a problem, should they not have owned up to it immediately and without prompting, maybe offered some wine on the house or done something to demonstrate that we had not been forgotten?  Sadly, the chance was lost to redeem the error by that time.

Anyway, back to the food.  Did I say spoiled?  When they finally arrived our dishes gave off every appearance of having sat around for some while before serving.  The pea puree had acquired a crusty dried look (“nuked” as my companion put it) and tasted stone cold, the chips were soggy and the batter tasted like cardboard, even if the haddock within was perfectly blameless.  The only first class element was also the only part uncooked – a really excellent home-made tartare sauce.

As for my companion’s belly pork with mustard mash, it was tasty but also chilled beyond the point of no return, which in a dessert might be desirable but not with main courses.  Maybe ordering cold dishes is the key?

We paid and left, eventually settling for soft ice cream cones as the next best thing, hoping the experience would not dampen an otherwise glorious day.  I don’t doubt the Swan can and does provide an excellent dining experience; but this was not it.  It was mutually agreed it would be lovely to return there by arrangement and give The Swan a second chance, though you would like to think this review will make them think long and hard about how they communicate with paying guests.

Mistakes will always be made, but you can find ways and means to reduce the pain factor and not make the customer feel like he or she is an afterthought.  Needless to say I will email this link to the restaurant and invite them to comment.

PS.  With thanks to Mr John Morrell, Food and Beverage manager at the Swan, for having the good manners to call me and hold his hands up – he accepted the criticisms and offered us a lunch on the house.  I think every decent restaurant deserves two chances, and the Swan is no exception!

PPS. Read the next gripping instalment of The Swan at Lavenham here! 🙂

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