Andrew Du Bourg has accommodated the locals while keeping the Michelin faith, as Hannah Thompson discovers
Compared to the village-like bakeries that surround its cobbled-street setting, the neatly chic Elderflower in Lymington, Hampshire, is unexpected. All the more so, given that little more than eight months ago it was an unremarkable all-day café; now it's a meticulously run restaurant from an experienced head chef with visions of Michelin recognition.
That chef is Yorkshire-born, South-African raised Andrew Du Bourg, whose career has spanned pastry chef at the two-Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant the Square, head chef at Pascal Aussignac's Michelin-starred Club Gascon, and head chef at five-star Hampshire hotel Chewton Glen.
By March this year, Du Bourg and his French wife Marjolaine had secured the site, toned down the dark wood, ripped out the 1970s carpet, and opened a clean, 40-cover space.
This pared-down approach is also reflected in Du Bourg's food. This is partly about keeping things simple in the small kitchen, and partly about the local clientele, who were not, he suggests, initially ready for the high-end place he first envisaged. Nonetheless, his locally sourced dishes are modern and bold.
"I wouldn't want someone to come to my restaurant and think that they could be anywhere," he says. "I've taken off a few of the scarier tastes and techniques, but it's still about keeping flavours and presentation clean and strong. I still try to cook with the same flair."
One example is the lightly grilled mackerel (part of the £38 four-course menu), which focuses on texture and simple taste juxtapositions. There's burnt seaweed powder, pickled seaweed, little scallop boudins with cream, elderflower-infused mackerel velouté, and confit lemon potato cubes, slow-cooked at 80°C.
Despite having to make a few changes from his original ideas, Du Bourg remains ambitious. He'd love to win a star, and has big ideas for next year, including brewing his own strawberry wine for summer, planning for the game season ("smoked grouse with coffee"), and, crucially, locking down his own personal style.
His yearning for originality comes out in some of the more unusual flavour combinations. Examples include trout gravlax with strawberry and red pepper salsa (£7.50), which involves curing the fish for 12 hours in sugar, peppercorns, salt, cloves, orange juice and whisky, before brushing it with violet mustard and adding it to avocado purée and the fruity-peppery sauce.
Although he describes his approach as modern British, it's clear that a certain Mediterranean influence shines through.
"A little bit of Club Gascon rubbed off on me," he says. "Pascal [Aussignac] really opened my mind to those flavours and unusual pairings. And also, being on the south coast now, it makes sense to build on that Mediterranean feel."
This is particularly true when it comes to the sea bass (£18.50), which is cooked with a warm salad of squid, Italian fregola, capers and salted anchovies. It's also a nod to Du Bourg's evolution from a chef who once preferred to cook meat, into one who uses more fish than ever. Especially when it's local, and craftily delivered through the front door just in time to kickstart orders.
"Very often my local fisherman will arrive at 7pm with two beautiful looking fish," he explains. "And that gets it going. It's the bestselling dish."
But he still loves cooking with meat, having balanced his desire for the best cuts with the demands of his customers. He offers a solid Sunday lunch menu, and reverted to a sirloin rather than rib-eye, after some said they preferred it.
"I've been working on that dessert since my Club Gascon days," he says. Designed to appeal to customers who might in earlier years have enjoyed a cigar with their dessert and coffee, it features whisky mousse in a cup topped with coffee ice-cream and vanilla foam, and a cigar-shaped tuile made from chocolate, smoked with a real cigar. There's even 'ash', made from smoked vanilla sugar.
This type of inspiration, he says, is far more along the lines of what he still longs to do in future, across the entire menu.
While the Elderflower may be in its early stages, for its chef - who is quiet yet restless, and fizzing with ambition - there's a sense that there is likely far more to come.
From the menu
Starters Smoked Beaulieu Estate venison haunch, confit tomato, summer vegetables, summer truffle £10
Grilled baby artichokes, braised Dorset snails, sweet garlic purée, parsley and watercress wafer £8.50
Mains Roasted Hampshire sirloin steak, crispy shallot rings, field mushroom, roast tomatoes £20
Aligot, roast salsify, creamy wild mushrooms, smoked goat's cheese £15.50
Desserts New Forest gÁ¢teau, tangy apple, hazelnuts, milk chocolate, and mead ice-cream £7.50
Baked Brillat-Savarin cheesecake, strawberry and raspberry, iced mint and verjus £7
The Elderflower, 4-5 Quay Street, Lymington,
Hampshire SO41 3AS