The Bull & Willow Room, Great Totham

It happens earlier every year: from late November onwards, most restaurants, pubs and chains are ramped up for the Christmas Party season, far and away their most profitable time of the year. Leaflets featuring festive menus are available from the middle of the year as the places vie for work parties, girls’ nights out, almost any occasion where people congregate en masse for food, drink and a general knees-up.

Not being particularly a party animal myself, I find the impact on those who just want a quiet dinner out to be less than congenial.  The general level of hubbub increases, space between tables reduces to a tight squeeze, service becomes more stressed and the whole evening becomes an obstacle course rather than a pleasant and relaxing social occasion.

That my birthday falls 3 weeks into November doesn’t help, but on this occasion I had the pleasure of being taken out for dinner to The Bull & Willow Room in Great Totham, ostensibly a sleepy village between Tiptree and Maldon, but one that attracts the crowds at this time of year.  It is also a proper pub, restaurant, function suite and boutique hotel in its own right, and will now be competing in that market with the likes of the Blue Anchor in Feering.

The Bull was made over within my time in Essex and is easily identifiable by virtue of having its name painted on the building, not to mention a bull sculpture and a large Willow in the garden.  In its own words:

The Bull is an award winning, leading destination restaurant, based in a 16th century coaching inn in Great Totham.  The Bull offers a mix of hearty, seasonal food and drink combined with a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere in an idyllic rural setting.

The team at The Bull prides itself on offering an exceptional culinary experience for every customer and we serve fresh, seasonal food of the highest quality.  Our lunch and dinner menus are available in both The Bull and Willow Room.

The Bull and Willow Room have accrued two AA rosettes, as well as an AA highly commended award for 2013, and are very proud to receive the honour of being recommended in the Red Michelin Guide 2013.

Our light and elegant dining room overlooks lavender-filled gardens and Essex fields beyond. You can choose to drink an aperitif in our magnificent gardens and on some days, you will hear the thwack of leather on willow as a game unfolds on the pitch across the way.

Our position, in the heart of bucolic Essex countryside, yet less than an hour from London, will make us a destination for locals and culinary adventurers from further afield.

By that reckoning I am indeed a local, though bucolic is not a word generally applied even to the furthest outposts of Essex. I’ve never previously eaten at the Bull, but neither have I seen it packed to the rafters, as it was on this Friday evening.  A good sign though it comes at a slight cost in customer comfort and intimacy.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t begrudge restaurants this opportunity to make hay while the sun shines one iota, but more than once I’ve made a mental note to choose restaurants with more care in future to ensure conversation for the mildly hard of hearing is indeed possible – it depends what you’re after.

In fact, the Bull’s function room, the Willow Room, was geared for parties and indeed entertained the crowds with a very decent singer.  Live music is always welcome, though on this occasion it was not the primary reason for visiting the Bull – in fact we had no idea that it was included, but then had we clocked the fact that this is the party season it would not have been a surprise.  That apart, the purpose of the evening was to enjoy freshly made, well-presented and flavoursome food and and drink in good company to celebrate said birthday, helped by an offer giving 50% off the price of dinner for two – not to be sniffed at.

We arrived early and headed for the bar for an aperitif of gins and tonic for me and diet coke for my hostess and chauffeur for the evening.  The first of several apologies followed, this one attributed to the honesty of the barmaid on her first night since she could not manipulate the computerised till to assign the drinks bill to the table tab.  That she owned up with such charm made up for any lack of efficiency, so the drinks were acquired by cash.

The bar area is pleasant, subtly modernised, and equipped with football on TVs at discreet volume.  The ambience is enhanced by a range of pictures, though it has the made-over feel rather than the traditional country pub it once was.  Moving into the restaurant area, we were moved on into the Willow Room, a vast space behind the main pub, and put on a table in the corner, close by the flight path to the kitchen and to one side of entertainment central, where the singer was knocking out Stevie Wonder tunes with a touch of pzazz.

Before arriving we had looked at the sample menu on the pub’s website and wondered if they really were serving locally-supplied asparagus in the highly unseasonal month of November.  Of course not, the online menu clearly being a Spring menu, though it would have been helpful had the website provided regular updates.  The current menu differs significantly, to the extent that very few dishes are carried over, quite apart from being attuned to Autumnal ingredients.  Indeed, this is pointed out on the website, alongside a touch of marketing hyperbole:

Named after the ancient willow in our garden, the Willow Room restaurant at the Bull brings an exceptional fine dining experience to this corner of Essex. Our chefs, have sourced the very best fresh seasonal ingredients from top local producers to create a menu that we hope will delight you. As the seasons change, so will our dishes. With their creative thought devoted to combining flavour and texture in deeply rewarding ways, they hopes that the work in the restaurant kitchen will delight you.

An “exceptional fine dining experience”?  Thats a mighty high standard to set yourself, one that’s very easy to miss by a little as it is to miss by a country mile, particularly in an establishment priced at affluent Essex levels rather than Michelin starred gourmet dining astronomic heights, the point being that it requires exceptional attention to detail, is very costly to produce, and generally avoids gastropub favourites such as fish & chips or lamb shanks.  If you aspire to standards that high, you have to be judged accordingly, which may not yield the intended results.  Nothing wrong with ambition, but surely better to aim just a tad lower and exceed expectations?  The risk is that you will be compared to the truly fine dining establishments and end up disenchanting your punters?

The menu we were offered perhaps did not quite read as well as the web version, though it did have highlights.  It also gave way to charming apology no 2 when it turned out that the ordered tempura prawns had just sold out – but then I’d much sooner fresh ingredients were available in limited supply rather than coming out of the freezer and into the deep fryer.  For the record, charming apology no 3 came soon after with the information that my steak would warrant an extra charge above the offer price, and ditto charming apology no 4 later on since cheese would have added further, had we taken it.  End of apologies, but tip earned.

We eventually plumped for starters of pressed smoked ham hock terrine and goats cheese panna cotta with figs.  The former arrived in a concentrated block of hammy flavours, accompanied by a silverskin onion, pickled cauliflower, chestnut and carrot, plus a small splodge of an orangey-yellow coulis (apricot or mango maybe?), but not the advertised crisp-fried quails egg, presumably another victim of limited supply.  A robust piccalilli, or even Fergus Henderson’s deconstructed piccalilli and decent crusty bread would have worked better to set off the ham hock, though from the chef’s perspective that would probably be considered a mundane option.  In my view there’s nothing wrong with serving classic combinations that work to perfection, and doing them just that little bit better each time.

I’m not sure whether I approve of panna cotta (“cooked milk”), traditionally an achingly delicious Italian dessert, being taken in vain for a starter, particularly since this was a delicate flavour and needed a tad more oomph (a variant with blue cheese maybe?), but the diner in question polished off and enjoyed the dish so no problem there.

For main courses, we selected respectively lemon sole and rare breed rib eye steak, the latter served with so-so pommes allumettes (aka “fries”), mushroom, onion rings, roast tomatoes and perfunctory salad garnish.  I sometimes wish restaurants were a little more imaginative with accompaniments to steak, but the meat was of evidently good quality, competently grilled, and served rare as requested – almost bleu in fact, which was fine by me.

I didn’t get to sample the sole or roast potatoes, but both looked excellent and were complimented by my hungry companion. The lime butter adorning the sole also drew praise from her, which perhaps indicates that the accompaniments to the fish dish were thought through with sensitivity and expedited with no little flair.

Further praise for a well-chosen wine list, from which an Argentinian Malbec Reserva proved a very fine sample.  It was bursting with fruity, smokey flavours and by the standards of restaurant wine markups proved good value at £23.95.

Desserts, in the absence of the cheese option, were for my companion a selection of ice creams and for me arguably the most demanding dessert short of fresh soufflé, a chocolate fondant served with salted caramel ice cream: a little too much cooking and your fondant ends up as chocolate sponge; too little and you have a pool of cake mix; but done right your spoon breaks through the spongy crust and hot molten chocolate flows out in a gushing lava stream.  Shame then that the fondant was perhaps overcooked by 10-15 seconds, but was otherwise tasty.  It and ice cream were evidently not on speaking terms, being at opposite ends of the plate, separated by a fashionable smear of chocolate sauce, but in practice proved highly complementary.  The ice cream lit up my palate – salted caramel can be very special and this was a fine version.

The Willow Room had gradually emptied, so by the time coffee arrived there was just one other couple left, at which point the singer was engaging with her audience, asking for requests and doing singalong versions in the various keys adopted by those duetting with her.  My request was my party piece, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, sung in my case in a rich baritone aided markedly by several drinks.  I’m not quite sure I deserved her praise, but upon reflection she added to the fun, and customers leaving with smiles on their faces is what it’s about – they are the ones most likely to return.

Overall a pleasant evening, helped by service with a smile.  But if I return to eat there it will be after the Christmas season has died and normal service has resumed.  I wish the management of the Bull well in their quest to make the establishment a regular haunt for dining and drinking, plus a good night’s sleep for out-of-towners.  It’s a competent restaurant serving decent food, but not the exceptional fine dining standards it claims to be.  My advice would be to judge accordingly and not by the website blurb.

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