Lockdown gave Merlin Labron-Johnson the chance to invest more time in growing produce for his first solo restaurant, and a menu that shows it off, Katherine Price reports.
"Usually you're either a destination, fine-dining restaurant, or you can be a local restaurant for local, neighbourhood people. I really want to be both," says Merlin Labron-Johnson.
"I want to be a place where local people feel they can come for lunch or dinner any day of the week, but also good enough that people will travel a few hours to get there. There aren't many restaurants that manage that."
The chef, formerly executive chef of the Woodhead Restaurant Group, including the Michelin-starred Portland and Clipstone in London, opened his first solo restaurant, Osip, in the Somerset town of Bruton in November last year. The building, which was previously a hardware store, private home and old forge, also houses the No 1 Bruton boutique hotel.
Ahead of lockdown Osip was already seeing a mixture of locals and guests travelling in from London on weekends to dine at the 32-cover restaurant. And having taken on a plot of land for growing vegetables during lockdown and spent his time cultivating that while the restaurant was closed, Labron-Johnson also appears to be ever closer to his other aim. He hopes to become almost entirely self-sufficient when it comes to fruit and vegetables between those he grows himself and those supplied by his partnership with the Husbandry School in Devon's Newton Abbot.
He says: "We are structuring our entire menus around what we've grown. Obviously we buy stuff from other people, but every dish has something we've grown in it."
Every dish has something we've grown in it
The menus at Osip are predominantly plant-focused for environmental reasons. A crudité course with a devilled egg cream currently includes different types of radishes, cucumbers and baby carrots, which may evolve into cooked or pickled vegetables later in the year, reflecting the confidence the farm-to-table restaurant has in the quality of its produce.
Meanwhile, courgette soup is served cold with a courgette and gooseberry marmalade alongside a tart made with courgettes, ricotta and Millstone cheese. This is followed by a roasted duck with whole roasted beetroots, accompanied by a sauce made with fermented blackcurrants. Meat dishes are often served with a salad, which most recently has included a bouquet of Japanese mustard leaves tied together and served with a pine vinaigrette.
"What we aim to do with these ingredients is not manipulate them too much and put them back on the plate as the best representation of what they are, or can be," says Labron-Johnson. "We don't use any fancy machinery or gadgets. Pretty much everything is cooked in a pan, there's no sous vide."
Wild game comes from the Sharpham Park estate, which also provides spelt flour for the restaurant's bread. The menu also makes full use of Somerset's dairy larder, with products from Westcombe Dairy or Wootton Organic.
Since reopening, the à la carte menu has been scrapped – now all guests choose is whether to opt for three or six courses at lunch, with six at dinner the only option. Labron-Johnson and his four-strong brigade decide the rest based on guests' preferences and dietary requirements. Describing it as a ‘three course menu' is, he says, "underselling" the experience, with plenty of snacks and between-course additions depending on what is available that day.
He describes his cooking as French in technique using British ingredients, with nods to old French classics. He particularly points to his year at the Michelin-starred Albert 1er in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc as inspiration, where he says the chef would often go foraging between lunch and dinner service.
When it comes to lockdown, he looks for the positive side: "Being able to close the restaurant for four months has allowed me time to think about what I want it to be," he says. "We've come back with a much clearer idea of what we want and we're not trying to please everyone any more. We're trying to be the restaurant we want to be and hope that's exciting for some people and that there will be enough of those people to enable us to survive."
In fact, benefited by the boom in stay- cations, the restaurant has been fully booked since reopening on 30 July. As a result, Labron-Johnson plans to nearly double the size of his brigade to accompany extending the opening of the restaurant from four to six days a week due to demand.
Although he acknowledges stars and rosettes can help draw diners, he says he's not cooking for the guides. He's more interested in ensuring the restaurant is full and guests, whether local or from further afield, are happy.
1 High Street, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0AB
From the menu
- Garden crudité, devilled egg cream
- Treacle and ale bread, hay smoked butter
- Courgette soup, white currant/ courgette tart fine
- Trout en papillotte, cider and garden vegetables
- Aylesbury duck, beetroots, orach and elderberries
- Sunflower and marigold tart
- Cannele de Bordeaux/pâte de fruit
£39 for three courses; £65 for six
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