Tales of smuggling, foggy coastal walks and ancient churches dictate the creative process behind Harriet Mansell's menu at her first permanent restaurant. Katherine Price reports.
"I've got a little bit of an interest in the macabre; in folklore and local history," says chef Harriet Mansell. This can be seen in her menu, where inspiration comes from the myths and legends of the streets of Lyme Regis in West Dorset, where pop-up restaurant Robin Wylde has become a permanent fixture.
After graduating in politics and history at university, Mansell completed her Cordon Bleu culinary training at Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking.
After a three-month stage at Noma in Copenhagen, she went on to cook onboard vessels in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Seychelles. In early 2019 she returned to the UK and ran Robin Wylde at the Pop-Up Kitchen in Lyme Regis for six months, as well as appearing on BBC Two's Great British Menu earlier this year.
A former pottery workshop is now the permanent home for the 26-cover Robin Wylde, where a six-weekly changing menu focusing on West Country produce is offered.
"The brief is always time and place and seasonality, but if you add in another layer, which is to try to work to a theme, I think it can pull you in a really fun direction," she says. "I like to have a focus, so I quite often set a theme for each menu – not that the customers would know about it all the time. You do have to have some fun behind the scenes."
You do have to have some fun behind the scenes
One of her dishes from the pop-up, for example, combined tobacco, tea and brandy, a reference to the history of smuggling in the area, when goods were hidden in caves and tunnels along the coastline. Another, inspired by the spooky coastline fog, was a smoked mousse hiding smoked eel and mushrooms, with tapioca crisps made with black garlic and ash served on the side, to "scoop up the cloud".
Inspiration for a lamb dish cooked on an open fire served with baba ghanoush was sparked by a fire that took place at Widecombe-in-the-Moor in the 17th century. The village church of St Pancras was struck by lightning, and lamb sacrifices were reputedly made.
Mansell's opening menu at the permanent site started with a series of snacks, including a reduced crab bisque made using crab shells, sourced for free, served with sage oil and leek ash. "It's a really nice balance of strong flavours. An intense moment at the beginning of the meal," she says.
Another dish that has been converting a few non-believers has been a Portland Princess oyster from Portland in the Lyme Bay. The dish is similar to an Oyster Rockefeller, where a vermouth butter with tarragon and herbs is baked with the oyster for four minutes. She says the vermouth "really makes it sing" without overpowering the oyster flavour.
There is also a dish of charred carrot with a fig leaf stuffed with local Cobbett cheese, which is similar in texture to halloumi. The leaves came from Dorset vineyard Furleigh Estate and are par-boiled and preserved, blackened on an open fire, and served with honey- preserved plums and apple marigold.
Kid goat chops from Cabrito farm were also on the opening menu, served with Crown Prince squash and blackberry, however Mansell isn't sure if this dish will make it onto the relaunch menu after lockdown lifts.
"I really wanted to push the goat thing because goat meat is typically a waste product of the goats' cheese industry," she says. While perhaps 80% of guests loved it, the other 20% weren't used to the chewier texture.
"It was a bit challenging to get the best out of that to impress people, and because we're doing a tasting menu it's all about trying to do something that people are happy with. But I know you can't please everyone."
Mansell and her sous are the only full-time chefs, and Mansell also holds a Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 3 qualification, so is also in charge of wine pairing. The drinks list features a local ales, spirits, ciders and meads, as well as cocktails, such as a seaweed martini using foraged forest kelp-infused gin, a sloe olive, and crisps made from dried dulse and sugar kelp.
As well as the ‘roughly 10-course' £55 tasting menu, the restaurant offers a lunch menu for £25, which Mansell says is a "bloody bargain", and that includes "way more" than the three courses advertised, a way of appealing to the local audience, of which she is happy to already have a strong following.
Silver Street, Lyme Regis DT7 3HR
From the menu
- Kale and crab salad, crab bisque with sage oil and ash, warm Lyme Bay prawns and Dorset palourde clams in butter
- Portland Princess oyster
- Seabass tartare, salt bush
- Charred carrot, Cobbett stuffed fig leaf, honey plums, apple marigold
- Scallop, Green Maid, green fig
- Chestnut mushrooms, Old Winchester, hedgehog mushrooms, Three Daughters goats' cheese, Dorset truffle
- Kid goat, Crown Prince squash, blackberry
- Caramel crémeux, grapes granita, plum vinegar
£55 for 10 courses, plus £45pp for wine pairing
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