It's ingredients first at Liam Dillon's countryside restaurant, where improvements inside and out are very much on the menu. Emma Lake pays a visit.
Liam Dillon returned to his hometown of Lichfield in Staffordshire to take on the Boat Inn in 2017 and has slowly established its position as a culinary destination.
The chef took over the West Midlands pub in partnership with his dad, who is now the landlord. The family has since joined forces to develop the interiors and the generous two-and-a-half acre grounds, bringing them to the same level as the à la carte and tasting menus served within the restaurant.
When the hospitality industry came to a sharp halt in March, Dillon and his family began what had been expected to be a three- or four-year renovation programme, updating the toilets, adding a conservatory and building new pillars in the restaurant. Outside the car park was smartened up and a polytunnel and chicken coop added, which will eventually provide soft fruits, eggs and other ingredients to the restaurant.
On 4 September the restaurant reopened, offering both its à la carte and tasting menus, with the chef saying that if people were returning, they should find the food offering as they had last seen it.
The à la carte menu offers five options for each course, while a six-course tasting menu showcases the best ingredients the chef can lay his hands on. While Dillon describes his approach as ingredient-led, he is keen to stress that he does not believe this automatically translates into promoting hyper-local produce: "I champion some ingredients from Lichfield – there are farms growing beautiful asparagus, strawberries, soft fruits and berries – but I'll get scallops from Scotland, crabs from Dorset and so on.
"For me, the UK is my local. I know that might be frowned upon, but I can't say to a guest paying £24 for a main course that ‘it's not the best bit of lamb, but it's local'. It's down to individuals to pin their colours to the mast, and my cooking is ingredient-led, so it needs to be the best."
One ingredient championed by the chef is Cannock Chase fallow deer, which is delivered to the restaurant to be hung and butchered, with every part used. The offal goes into faggots, which might be served alongside the loin with an accompaniment of fried moss or beetroot pickles.
The philosophy of using the whole animal is showcased across the menu – although Dillon stresses he does supplement it with prime cuts to avoid having to use one ingredient across several dishes to ensure nothing is wasted.
This approach can be seen in the popular pig's head snack, where the head is braised, the meat flaked and spiced before being pressed into a terrine and served alongside cubes of burnt apple and a fresh apple disc.
Similarly, a fillet of roast halibut is served alongside a terrine made from the fish's head, which is steamed and pickled, before being finished with wild watercress.
In developing his craft Dillon has learned from esteemed chefs including Marcus Wareing, Will Holland and Tom Sellers, as well as completing stages at Eleven Madison Park in New York and Noma in Copenhagen.
He says: "I wanted to go to different places and take everything in. Will loved butchery, so learning that with him was great. In many kitchens, it's only senior staff who cut the fish or meat – I was lucky in that I could handle everything, and that helps you develop. From where I've been and what I've seen it's been about respecting the ingredients and that feeds into what I'm doing here. Whether it's moss or turbot, it's still treated the same. It doesn't matter if it's a high-value or very low-value product."
Whether it's moss or turbot, it's still treated the same. It doesn't matter if it's a high-value or very low-value product
Dillon has his eye firmly on the long game of developing the business. He says: "A Michelin inspector came in 2018. They had three courses and after they had left, I looked at the car park and thought, no matter what I'm doing inside, this isn't good enough. That kickstarted the focus on making the grounds the same standard.
"Before, I was looking up to the chef with the attitude or the one doing the crazy stuff, but now I look up to people like Heston, who took a small country pub in Bray and made it a world-renowned restaurant.
"I'm not saying I'll be lucky enough to do that, but I believe I can go a lot further – a lot, lot further. This is a massive site and I just need to get it up to standard."
The Boat Inn, Walsall Road, Lichfield WS14 0BU
From the à la carte menu
Dorset crab, kohlrabi, seaweed and wild cranberry £11
Quail ravioli, confit leg meat, tomato and courgette £8
Celeriac, truffle and potato £6
Jimmy Butler's pork loin, belly and cabbage £21
Plaice ‘en croute', wild mushroom and fish sauce £20
Cannock Chase fallow deer loin, faggot and beetroot pickles £24
Roast Hispi cabbage, tofu, onion and tomato £19
Custard tart, barbecue peach and lavender ice-cream £6
Carrot cake, crystallised nuts and artichoke ice-cream £5
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