Nestled in the Sussex countryside, Will Devlin's second restaurant is drawing a crowd who digs its home-grown philosophy, relaxed feel and stonking sharing plates. Jennie Milsom pays a visit.
Will Devlin, who is behind the Small Holding restaurant in the Kentish countryside, took over former coaching inn the Curlew earlier this year to pursue an "unshackled" approach to dining.
His early career saw him work his way up through kitchens including Michelin-starred Pétrus in London, but it was at Thackeray's in Tunbridge Wells (his hometown) and as head chef at the Windmill in Hollingbourne, both in Kent, where a focus on the connection between produce and plate shifted his cooking from classical to "innovative and progressive".
The Curlew opened briefly in February before the pandemic temporarily closed it and forced Devlin to take a step back. When he reopened both restaurants in July, it was with reduced opening days – Thursdays to Sundays – with Wednesdays reserved as a "fieldwork day" of foraging and tastings for the whole team.
He believes the result is a more rounded way of working that "brings that purpose back". He adds: "We needed a big shock to see the clarity. I don't think we would have been brave enough otherwise."
His first restaurant, the Small Holding, set in an acre of land eight miles away, provides much of the produce at the Curlew. "The seasons drive us forward, whether it's wild garlic or mushroom foraging," Devlin says. He advocates ‘no dig' farming. "We feed the soil rather than disturbing it. It all goes back to the ground. There's so much promotion about the end product – the conversation should be about where it's grown."
The seasons drive us forward, whether it's wild garlic or mushroom foraging
What they don't grow, forage or rear themselves is sourced from local producers. And, with game season now open, Devlin intends to shoot duck, pheasant and partridge, which he'll bring back and pluck "old school".
Covers have dropped by 10 to 36 and three chefs, led by Devlin, run lunch and dinner service, which, after the "kick in the nuts" curfew was introduced, begins earlier, at 5.30pm, to accommodate two sittings. "There's a nice buzz for everyone, finishing together," Devlin says.
The menu consists of small plates divided into snack, meat, fish, ‘whole', vegetable and sweet. Snacks include tarragon focaccia with apple balsamic (£4) and pork dumplings (£6). In fish, there is miso cod with seaweed sauce (£11) – a 24-hour white miso marinade firms up the flesh before cooking and the sauce is poured over at the table. Roast hake, clams, shellfish sauce (£10) is served with a curl of crispy skin.
Devlin's favourite dish is the whole Creedy Carver duck (£58). With "real ducks, the flavour is intense, the layer of fat is super- profound," he explains. Guests are invited to carve the crown and divvy up the heart (rolled in toasted seeds and roasted), liver (pan-fried and glazed with a duck reduction) and confit leg. It's served with gravy made from the neck bone, sweetened with garlic and thyme.
The selection and treatment of ingredients is always at the fore. Vegetable dishes include beetroot, ricotta, black pepper (£7). Beetroots are salt-baked in their skins to intensify their flavour, before being served warm with quenelles of house-made ricotta, made from milk that "changes with the seasons" from nearby Northiam Dairy, split with fennel vinegar.
Hispi cabbage, mushroom, egg (£7) sees yolks cured for five days in a 50/50 salt-sugar mix until hard and "gummy", then finely grated over the cabbage to lend umami notes. And there's a pumpkin pie with blue cheese (£7), filled with puréed pumpkin, sweet jewels of diced roasted pumpkin and a melting local blue cheese from Arthur Alsop at Alsop & Walker. It's wrapped in a sandy shortcrust and topped with aerated pumpkin custard, served warm and collapsing.
Desserts include sweetcorn parfait meringue (£8), which consists of a sponge disc, topped with crisp meringue and a playful wobble of sweetcorn curd that has been rolled in popcorn.
Drinks are no less local. "We're so blessed in this area," says Devlin, rattling off Oastbrook Estate Vineyard and Tillingham winery, a 15-minute drive towards Rye, among others. Local gins include carbon-neutral micro-distillery Greensand Ridge and 1066 Hastings, with beers from Good Things Brewing Co.
Everyone's welcome and you don't need to dress up, says Devlin. "Guests swing by for the whole duck, a bottle of wine and a cheese board. Come and have as little or as much as you like."
The Curlew, Junction Road, Bodiam TN32 5UY
From the menu
- Whitstable oysters, chermoula, cobnut £3 each
- Smoked mackerel, bronze fennel, cucumber £7
- Pork belly, fennel, scallop roe £9
- Rabbit loin, confit leg, chervil £12
- Beef cheek, spätzle, mustard £9
- Rack of lamb, mint £68
- Sea bass, cauliflower, anchovy £56
- Potato, thyme, red onion £8
- Dressed berries, milk and honey £8
- Plum tart, almond, burnt cream £7
Food Photography: Key & Quill
Will Devlin and interiors: Food Story Media
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