At this Menai Bridge eaterie, chef-patron Stephen Stevens uses taste charts to produce an unusal, finely honed menu. Hannah Thompson reports
Imagining a chef at work in the wilds of Anglesey may not immediately call to mind graph-drawing and scientific method, but when it comes to Stephen Stevens, chef-patron of Sosban & The Old Butchers restaurant, it certainly should.
The Menai Bridge restaurant (named after the Welsh word for saucepan) is only open three days a week and offers a constantly changing set menu that seeks to give diners a new experience every time. Upon making a reservation, diners are asked if they've been before, and if they have any dislikes or allergies. For £43.70, there are four courses, with optional cheese, and wine on top.
The food is unfailingly unconventional: a stickler for bold flavours, Stevens' cooking is underpinned not by traditional combinations, but by taste charts, which begin with one ingredient and "fan out". This leads to rare pairings such as roast cod, banana and almond, or sardines with feta ice-cream and tomato salad.
"We get an element that will be the ‘eye', such as pork," Stevens explains. "And then we branch off. So pork would be apple, pea, peanuts, aniseed… then carrot, maybe fennel ice-cream…"
Journey of discovery
He describes the rationale: the rack of lamb with peanut purée, because "there's an enzyme in peanut that tastes of grass and pea"; the cod with banana and almond because the crunch matches the fruity sweetness and fishy earthiness.
"It's giving someone something different, so they say 'Oh wow, I didn't know that went with that, but it really does!'" he says.
Classically trained, Stevens worked under Marcus Wareing, has done stages with Phil Howard at the Square, and consciously brings elements of his background to the Sosban table.
Although the original plan was to run a brasserie and spend more time with the kids, it didn't work out that way. Guests overwhelmingly began to choose the tasting menu over the Á la carte, and Stevens and his wife (and co-owner) Bethan realised that there was far more scope for creativity andâ¨variation - so much so that they can't imagine ever going back.
"I wouldn't go and work anywhere else - we're cooking our own style now; we've got a concept," he explains.
And word has spread. People travel far to taste the unusual menu, whose flexibility is key: if Stevens' suppliers reckon a piece of meat or fish isn't quite tender enough or marinated properly, the chef just tweaks the menu.
"The customers get the best on the day. We can just chop and change, depending on what's good," he says.
Past such dishes include crisp brisket of beef with orange purée and scorched leeks, and 24-hour-cooked pork belly in cider and â¨aromates, rolled in kipper butter.
Veggie stars But Stevens is equally as inspired by vegetables. He might do textures of cauliflower, with florets, raw mandolin slices and cauliflower couscous; or broccoli with almond and German spÁ¤tzle.
Despite the undeniably cheffy approach, Stevens doesn't like to use "fancy" techniques. The most he will stretch to is an in-house smoker; you'll find no liquid nitrogen here. Indeed, Stevens' philosophy comes down to one thing: flavour, and that comes from maintaining a constantly innovative, original approach to his cooking. With the 16-cover restaurant now booked up at least two months in advance, it seems the unusual philosophy is paying off.
"When Bethan and I have decided on a new dish, I do worry about it, and think 'Oh God, does that really go together?' But then, I look at the graphs again. Andâ¨I know it's fine."
Sample dishes from the menu
Cauliflower and anchovy soup with salsify crisps
Butternut squash risotto with mushrooms, sage and beurre noisette
Smoked brioche rolls with cumin
Crispy-skin cod with smoke potato and boise boudran sauce, with chives and tabasco
Home-smoked monkfish rolled in charred leek powder
Ox tongue with celeriac, celery leaves and beurre noisette
Pistachio and olive oil cake with clotted cream snow and textures of raspberries
Sweetcorn frozen soufflé with burnt caramel and salted popcorn
Earthy beetroot chocolate truffle cake with beetroot ice-cream
Sosban & The Old Butchers Restaurant, Trinity House, â¨1 High Street, Menai Bridge, â¨Isle of Anglesey LL59 5EE
Tel: 01248 208 131