The support and encouragement Martin Blunos has received from both the local community and other chefs working in Bath since his arrival two years ago has been phenomenal. “From the moment we arrived, people were ringing up to welcome us,” says Blunos, now firmly ensconced in his new business and new home. “It feels good here.”
And it is easy to see why. The Georgian house of mellow yellow stone in which his restaurant Lettonie now resides provides a natural setting for the refined, highly technical food that has won Blunos the rare distinction of two Michelin stars.
Lettonie’s original 24-seat home, just 11 miles away in the unprepossessing location of a Bristol suburban shopping parade, provided Blunos with a launch pad for life as a chef-proprietor. However, the position and Blunos’s distinctive, classical French food (with the occasional throwback to his Latvian heritage) were constantly at odds with one another.
A move was inevitable. Somewhere larger, grander and with bedrooms to accommodate the growing band of foodies who travelled long distances to sample one of the most highly rated restaurants in the country was sought. After looking for a couple of years, Blunos moved Lettonie into what was previously Newbridge House, an established hotel and restaurant a couple of miles outside Bath’s city centre.
The bedrooms at Newbridge House had been the focal point of the business, but Blunos and his wife Sian quickly turned things around. They closed for a couple of months while a new kitchen was installed and a part of the hotel was turned into a home for them and their sons, Leon and Max. What had been a nine-bedroom hotel reopened with a 34-seat restaurant, a private dining room for eight and just four letting rooms.
“This is very much a restaurant with rooms and not a hotel with lots of facilities,” says Blunos. “Lettonie is somewhere people come for the dining experience and then can crash out afterwards in one of the bedrooms.”
While the food and the grandeur of the building are now more in tune with one another, Blunos does not want to scare people off. For this reason he has just run a successful lunch promotion in which two courses were offered for £15 and three for £25. “People can be put off by the stars and the trappings,” he says. “We want to show that we’re not a lot of lackeys serving food in white gloves but we are, in fact, human. The promotion has enticed a lot more people in and hopefully some of them will come back for dinner.”
The cost of dinner, when business is generally brisker, is considerably higher: £44.50 for a set menu, with a choice of seven starters, seven main courses and a couple of savouries or five desserts. But, considering the quality of the food, the price – which includes canapés, an amuse-gueule and a pre-dessert – is very fair. Coffee and petits fours are an additional £3.95.
Having a set-price menu saves Blunos a lot of hassle. “Pricing everything separately is a pain in the arse; this way you win on some dishes and lose on others.”
Main-course dishes are balanced by the likes of sea bass with scallops and a herb butter sauce being served alongside slow-braised belly of pork with morels and morel cream sauce. For Blunos, the belly of pork is one of the tastiest and most popular dishes on the menu – despite its cheapness and its consequent reputation as a difficult item to put on the menu of a fine-dining restaurant.
“In the past I felt I had to justify its existence by adding a pork fillet to the dish, but the bit everybody enjoyed the most was the belly – so I dropped the fillet,” he says.
Blunos braises the belly pork slowly in the oven for three hours with peppercorns, a bay leaf and white wine, rendering the fat down and keeping the meat moist. The cooked meat is pressed and left to set, after which the fat is removed and the jelly reserved for the sauce. The skin is also removed and shredded before being crisped in a very hot oven; while the meat is fried, placed back in the oven and napped with stock until sticky. The finished pork – topped with crackling – is served with a celeriac purée, morels and the morel cream sauce made with the reserved jelly and a pork stock.
Moving to Bath has firmly enhanced Blunos’s reputation as a chef with an eye for precision. A larger brigade – six-strong – and more extensive kitchen facilities enable him to create dishes with time-consuming components. Blunos’s treatment of teal, shot by a local schoolteacher, is a typical example: three components of the wild duck – breast, drumstick and thigh – are served as a starter with an onion marmalade and lightly dressed salad. The breast is roasted on the bone; the drumsticks are poached and then wrapped in a chicken and foie gras mousse, which is re-formed to create a leg shape before being braised in some game stock with a touch of honey; and the bird’s liver and some foie gras are wrapped up in the flattened thighs, which are steamed and then braised until moist and glossy.
Lettonie’s signature dish for 11 years has been a scrambled duck egg topped with sevruga caviare, served with blinis and a glass of iced vodka. The egg is undercooked and brought to the table in its shell, then flamed with vodka to complete the cooking.
The dish, which represents something of Blunos’s Latvian parentage, has evolved over the years, with buckwheat blinis now being served alongside plain ones and a choice of flavoured vodkas – maybe lemon grass, chilli or Seville orange – being offered.
While still in Bristol, Blunos’s wicked sense of humour led him to create a twist on a dish that has become equally as eye-catching and talked-about as the original. Served as a pre-dessert, a hollowed-out hen’s egg is filled with a vanilla cream – pastry cream combined with whipped cream, sugar and lemon juice – and topped with mango coulis. The accompanying shortbread fingers and sprinkle of caster sugar and finely grated chocolate can fool customers into thinking they are being served an upmarket version of dippy egg and soldiers with salt and pepper on the side.
“I originally served it on Valentine’s night – when food is not normally the priority,” says Blunos. “I wanted to get the customers’ attention back to the table – and I succeeded. Food can get too bloody serious. I created this for a bit of fun and now we serve it all the time.”
Other creative offerings from Blunos include a half-inch slice of puffball mushroom being used as a pizza-style base for a topping of tomato concassé reduced with onion and garlic, olives, anchovies and mozzarella cheese. Served hot and topped with deep-fried basil leaves, the “pizza” is served as a canapé.
Blunos is probably one of the few chefs to make use of elvers – the young eels found in the River Severn estuary. Most of them get shipped off abroad, particularly to Italy. At Lettonie they are deep-fried to provide a crispy and salty contrast to steamed lemon sole served on a spring onion purée with glazed spring onions and a Champagne cream wine sauce.
Although he is settled in Lettonie’s new home, Blunos does expect there will be some expansion in the future – probably along the lines of a quality brasserie in the centre of Bath. “It really is the way to go, and it would provide a contrast with what we do here and help with staff recruitment and development,” he says.
Further afield, he suggests, there might be an opportunity to set up a Lettonie in Riga, the capital of Latvia. In January he is making his first trip there since 1981 to visit family and will look at possibilities. “I don’t want a big empire. It is just a natural progression.”