A relaxed approach to high-end dining encourages chefs to experiment with superior local ingredients, creating an ‘incubation space' for talent. Tessa Allingham reports.
As double garages go, it's pretty smart. Not many can claim a gleaming run of stainless steel, or seats for 16, or an Evogro cabinet filled with micro greens, or a monthly changing, foraged-inspired tasting menu.
This garage, on the Rougham Estate just outside Bury St Edmunds, is home to Forage Kitchen. Open for just four services a week pre-lockdown, the restaurant hangs its hat on creativity and discovery. Freed-up hours enable the brigade to invest more time in dish development than is often possible with conventional service pressures, in cultivating relationships with producers and in achieving a work-life balance.
For diners, the model translates into a blurring of the normal kitchen-dining room boundaries and a relaxed connection with chefs who deliver dishes from the open kitchen to guests seated at high tables. Guests can offer scores and feedback on the ‘experimental' chef's table night (£50) on the first Thursday of the month, or take their seats for a 10-course private dining session.
The approach tempted Tom Clarke – head chef at Michelin-starred L'Ortolan in Reading, since January 2015 – to join the team in November, with his partner and restaurant manager, Nancy Witte. The Chelmsford-born chef brings a 15-year career in classic kitchens to Suffolk, and skills honed at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, L'Oustau de Baumanière in Provence, and Le Strato, Courchevel.
After the demands of 60-80 high-end covers isn't Forage Kitchen too quiet? "It's relaxed, but to work at such a high standard but without the pressure is incredible," he says. "There's no excuse for not doing things properly, but here I have time to express myself and to work with different ingredients and styles."
He works alongside Rik Withers and Ryan Edgeworth, who have been at Forage Kitchen since it opened in late 2018. Nobody takes a head chef role, instead the three work to devise ambitious menus that change, entirely, every four weeks. Dishes are only repeated if they make the cut for January's ‘Best of Forage' series.
Service begins at 7pm with a canapé or two, perhaps a slice of thyme brioche toasted in beef fat and topped with diced Red Poll beef heart pastrami. It's a wake-up wallop of flavour in two mouthfuls, the richness of the pastrami and dots of bone marrow mayo cut with parsley purée and shallot-garlic vinaigrette. The meat is from James Forrest's small, grass-fed Red Poll herd at Stonham, mid-Suffolk, that the team visited in December.
"Everywhere else I've worked there's never been time to get out of the kitchen," says Clarke. "To visit a farmer like James was incredible." For business owner Mel Evans, this approach captures the notion of ‘foraging'. "We run foraging courses, and we use what we pick, but for me, foraging is not just about wild ingredients, it's about discovery."
For me, foraging is not just about wild ingredients, it's about discovery
Felixstowe-based fishmonger James Hunt supplies the delicate halibut, brined in kombu and myrtle leaf, cooked sous-vide and pan- finished. The fish skin is dehydrated and mixed with dried kombu, and the fillet is served on slivers of fresh radish with translucent ribbons of blanched turnip, fresh and pickled mooli, and elderberries, picked from the tree outside the restaurant. A smooth, miso-edged beurre blanc anchors the dish, which is at once delicate and muscular, sweet and sharp.
Oxalis, grown in the Evogro, inspired a dessert of oxalis granita with spiced quince and whipped vanilla and toasted almond custard. The sour, appley edge of the leaf is balanced by floral quince, and a pinch of sumac makes flavours pop. Delicious in its simplicity, a ‘reverse affogato', is a fresh dark chocolate and coffee sorbet on an airy cherry brandy crème anglaise.
Evans sees the restaurant as an "incubation space" running alongside a wedding events business and a separate marketing agency. "Time and encouragement to explore means the team can be creative; do things differently. And we wanted to develop a space that we would enjoy."
It seems others do too: evenings sell out quickly, but accolades are not a main priority, Evans says: "What is it they say? Focus on performance and the results will look after themselves. We have a busy restaurant and lots of regulars. That's what matters."
Forage Kitchen, Rougham, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP30 9JG
From the menu
- Brik pastry tart, toasted walnuts, Binham Blue cheese, celeriac foam, flaxseed cracker, mussel emulsion
- Scallop tartare, citrus dressing, coconut purée, gorse flowers, black onion seed tuile, wild garlic sauce
- Honey-glazed duck breast, confit duck bonbon, charred clementine, braised king oyster mushroom, pak choi
- Slow-cooked feather blade, roast and purée cauliflower, confit shallot, wild horseradish dauphinoise
- Butternut squash and white chocolate crémeux, white chocolate mousse, winter-spiced Italian meringue, lemon polenta cake, hay and burnt honey ice-cream
- Sheep's curd mousse, Mexican marigold granita
Ten-course dinner, £65; five-course lunch, £30; wine flight, £35
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