The north Norfolk coast has become somewhat of a culinary hot spot in recent years, but you won't find many Michelin stars there. Indeed, there's just one, at Morston Hall. The area is more of a Bib Gourmand and gastro-pub scene, with much trumpeting of local produce and lots of great cooking in the typical time-stood-still, flint-flecked coastal villages.
There may, though, be another Michelin star in the making, and while it might not arrive in time for the next guide, the honour seems certain to be given the following year - whether the recipients want it or not.
Kevin and Jacki Mangeolles, who are both in their early 40s, took over the Neptune at Old Hunstanton in the middle of August last year - at the height of the season. Despite this, they hit the ground running.
They were previously at the George in Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, where Kevin won a Michelin star for his creative cooking in 1994 and held on to it for the next 11 years. For her part, Jacki managed the place, plus two other properties in the same group. But they always dreamed about going it alone, so here they are in a pretty Norfolk village at the beginning of a magnificent stretch of coast that extends as far as Cromer.
The 18th-century coaching inn looks enticingly cosy with its roaring fire, fresh flowers, polished wood floors and boating paraphernalia - and with large plates of Kevin's food flying out of the kitchen. As we sat in the bar before dinner on a wintry Saturday, three cars-full pulled up, the occupants pleading for a table. Sadly, they had to be turned away, but not before they had secured reservations for another night.
The Neptune was one of the first places the couple looked at, although they thought they had better check out a few more properties before striking a deal and so spent 18 months travelling as far afield as Cornwall and St Andrews (even looking over the Peat Inn). When they settled on the Neptune, having realised its potential, they snapped it up for £652,000.
"We wanted to live somewhere nice, and somewhere near the sea - that was our main criterion," says Kevin, grinning. A Yorkshireman with a penchant for waterskiing, he cites Pierre Koffmann as a mentor, and honed his cooking at Grasmere restaurant Michael's Nook - where he met Glaswegian Jacki - before winning his own star at the George.
The business does need some fine tuning, though. Kevin speculates that the previous owners struggled somewhat, picturing a classic tale of a dream not playing out. Newcomers to the industry, they had struggled to make the Neptune pay, employing a head chef and too many front-of-house staff, which gobbled up any profit. They also appear to have channelled any spare cash they had into their huge apartment, a stunning warehouse-style loft which lies directly behind the inn and commands views over the surrounding landscape and rooftops.
"It certainly ticked all the right boxes," says Kevin. "We wanted a place that felt right for us, that felt comfortable. I admit the living accommodation was a selling point for us - you need a bit of quality of life, a place where you can be happy.
"Of course, we were prepared to put up with a lot less, but the Neptune presented us with a challenge. We could see that it wasn't running as well as it could have been. And that challenge is a good thing for us, as it makes us strive forward, gives us energy. We want it to be better. It's definitely the most exciting time for us, though maintaining that once we've finished will be far harder."
Actually, the business is not dissimilar to their beginnings at the George on the Isle of Wight, an area which has the same untouched feel. Kevin says: "You feel a bit like the world has passed you by here - but in a good way, not unlike Yarmouth."
Such a judgement certainly doesn't apply to the standard of food and accommodation in this part of the world. From the Victoria at Holkham to Fishes in Burnham Market, operators here are playing to a well-travelled, well-heeled crowd, with all the expectations they bring. There's no resting on your laurels here.
"I don't want to be just an ordinary restaurant on the north Norfolk coast," Kevin declares. "It's important that we try our best. The level I came from at the George is the level I expect to maintain here."
The food was certainly more refined than I expected, given that they had just moved in and Kevin had lost his entire brigade. When I visited, it was just him and his new commis, Kirsty Smedley, turning out some pretty smart cooking for the diners, whose numbers are currently limited to 24 but are set to rise to 36 once an additional dining area in the bar is up and running.
An unadvertised amuse-bouche of chicken liver mousseline arrives in an eggshell, à la French Laundry in California's Napa Valley - which Kevin famously visited three times in one week - followed by starters such as cassoulet duck confit with garlic sauce (£6.95) and crab and pink grapefruit risotto (£7.50).
Main courses include fillet of plaice with Thornham oysters, Little Gem and new potatoes (£18.95), and pan-fried Aberdeen Angus rib-eye of beef with braised beef, sautéd potatoes, onion purée and red wine sauce (£19.50). To finish, warm prune and almond cake, roasted fig, coffee ice-cream, tonka bean and almond sauce (£6.50), and condensed milk rice pudding with quince jam (£6.50).
Kevin gets the quinces from a neighbouring farm, while the oysters and mussels are from just down the road in the village of Thornham. "They're gorgeous," he says. "Much plumper than I've ever had before, and they taste great."
His beef is from Donald Russell in Aberdeenshire, but he's currently researching meat from local farms. "We haven't had a chance to explore yet," says Kevin.
There's a lot the couple are planning to do when they do manage to catch their breath. With that in mind, they closed for two weeks in November to begin renovations and to check out the competition and local farmers' markets. "By the end of January," they say, "we want to be a lot further down the line with the food and the rooms."
For starters, the rather hefty, 1990s-style square white tableware will be replaced by pieces from Limoges. "It's the whole package," says Jacki. She explains: "It's about exceeding expectation. People like eating off nice plates and using nice cutlery. We're going to mix it up a bit, though - we've got nice stuff coming from Habitat, too." The glassware they replaced early on. Jacki says: "We had to, as it was all branded."
The wine list, which is also down to Jacki, is a work in progress. At the moment there are just 40 bins, a number which she plans to double in the coming months, spreading the coverage to include most parts of the vinous globe. But at least she has the storage for the wine sorted. The Neptune was a notorious smuggler's haunt in the mid-18th century and most restaurateurs would kill for its generous cellar space, which comes complete with a boarded-up tunnel leading to a secret passage that runs down to the houses that edge the coast.
The bar used to operate as a local pub, with a couple of beers on tap, but the Mangeolles have stopped that service. Instead, the bar will be used as a holding area until it is turned over entirely to tables once the refurbishment is under way.
The beer offering now consists only of bottles - though there are 10 of them, from Brooklyn Lager to local Abbot Ale and beers from Suffolk's St Peter's Brewery, which are proving popular with diners - "especially women," Jacki says.
The Neptune will eventually open for lunch from Thursday to Sunday (it currently offers just Sunday lunch) and close for dinner on Monday - and possibly Sunday - night. But there are always the seven bedrooms (and breakfast) to keep the Mangeolles on their toes.
With room rates starting at £45 per person per night, including a full English breakfast, this is one area Jacki can't wait to get started on. "The beds are too small, the carpets are horrid, and the bathrooms need updating. I just want to get on with it," she says grimly. They probably will end up offering a minimum two-night stay over the weekend, like everybody else in the area.
Jacki intends to oversee the interiors herself, with a little help from a friend. She will keep the New England seaside feel, though, with white-painted furniture, tongue-and-groove panelling, model boats and seascapes - all fresh, light and bright.
While there is still much to do, the pair admit that they have been "very pleased" with their reception so far. "In fact," they say, "it's exceeded our expectations - and those of others, too. And we've been far busier than we thought we would be."
Yes, I reckon the Mangeolles will be just fine here.
Fried ham terrine, roast garlic mayonnaise, deep-fried egg and a parsley soup
For the terrine 2 ham hocks
1/2 head garlic
1 bunch parsley stalks
For the roast garlic mayonnaise 1 head garlic
400ml rapeseed oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2tsp xanthan gum
For the parsley soup
2 sticks celery
50g parsley purée (blanch and blend the leaves)
2 cloves garlic
For the deep-fried eggs Eggs
Honey panko (Japanese-style crumbs)
Method To make the terrine, cut the veg into large pieces and put into a pan with the ham hock. Cover with water and simmer for 2-3 hours. When the ham is cooked, flake the meat and press into a mould with the diced vegetables.
For the mayonnaise, roast the garlic in their skins until soft and then squeeze into a blender. Add the xanthan gum and lemon juice, then slowly add the oil. Finish with salt.
For the deep-fried eggs, lightly poach the eggs, refresh then coat in flour, egg wash and onion seeds, honey panko and chopped parsley.
For the parsley soup, cut the veg very small and sweat in butter. Add 450ml of ham cooking juice then simmer until the veg is soft, and liquidise. Add 50g of parsley purée and pass though a fine strainer. Infuse some garlic in milk to froth for the top of the soup.
Slice the terrine and pan-fry in a little oil. Deep-fry the egg. Brush the garlic mayonnaise on the plate and put the egg on the terrine, and then garnish the plate with caper berries and pea shoots. Serve the soup in a shot glass with a little of the garlic froth on top.
The Neptune Inn & Restaurant, 85 Old Hunstanton Road, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk. Tel: 01485 532122. www.theneptune.co.uk