Hotel Inspector Ruth Watson is applying her business sense to this Suffolk neighbourhood Italian, accompanied by approachable cooking from chef Rob Walpole. Tessa Allingham reports.
Watson and Walpole was due to open in April. But bunting, bells and whistles packed away, the team instead entered lockdown, eventually opening to patient customers on 23 July.
The Watson element in this neighbourhood Italian restaurant, just off Framlingham's market square in Suffolk, is Ruth Watson, experienced hotelier, restaurateur and Channel 5's Hotel Inspector. With her husband, David, she turned Hintlesham Hall near Ipswich into a renowned country house hotel in the mid-1980s; championed the 1990s gastropub phenomenon as owner of the Fox & Goose in Fressingfield; and ran the coastal Crown and Castle restaurant with rooms in Orford from 1999, until the couple sold their interest to TA Hotel Collection (now the Hotel Folk) in October 2017.
The business of profitable hospitality dictates Watson's every decision. "If we can't put a dish on at the right margin, we won't. If you can't make the bottom line work, then you can't take the business forward or pay your staff. It's simple."
If we can't put a dish on at the right margin, we won't. If you can't make the bottom line work, then you can't take the business forward
‘Walpole' is chef Rob Walpole, Watson's business partner and long-standing kitchen collaborator, having cooked at the Crown and Castle for 10 years, ultimately as head chef.
Watson and Walpole work closely on the menu, sharing a love of approachable, tasty Italian cooking over what Watson calls "got-up" food. "Chefs using liquorice powder just because they think it's funky to me is a sign of immature cooking," she says, bluntly.
A monthly changing 7-7-6 à la carte remains roughly the same for lunch and dinner, with vegetarian and vegan options listed separately. Sunday lunch trade is growing, while a midweek sharing lunch (£15pp, minimum two covers) appeals to grazers and sharers "à la Polpo", says Walpole.
You'll most likely find Walpole upstairs in his pasta room, where he mixes dough in a reconditioned 50-year-old Hobart, rolling it through a Lineapasta sheeter onto a wooden bench, built to his spec from a salvaged countertop.
"Nothing else happens in this room, just flour, eggs, water," he says. "It's clean, focused, the right temperature and humidity." It's here that he packs his favourite agnolotti with St Jude cheese (£13.50), or pansoti with brown butter and sage (£13.50).
Ever-popular tortelloni (£13.50) are served in a smoked tomato ragù with Laverstoke Park ricotta, which Walpole loves for its freshness. "The buffalo are milked on the Monday, the ricotta is made on the Tuesday and it's with me Wednesday." Alongside one filled pasta, there are always two long varieties, perhaps bucatini with classic Roman cacio e pepe (£14.50), or fettuccine with girolles (£14.50).
Downstairs, a Fuego oven lights Walpole's fire. The wood-fired oven is lit daily to roast, bake, smoke and sear. "We roast chillies, peppers and tomatoes for the smokiest salsa rossa. It elevates vegetables to where they deserve to be. We've started doing puffed flatbread in it, too."
Dying embers aren't wasted. "We start lamb shoulders at 400ºC, then cover with chicken stock and foil and leave overnight. Ten hours later, the oven is still 80ºC and the bones slide out. We portion and bring it back up to order, first in the Fuego, then basted in a rich lamb jus." Served with baked borlotti beans and salsa rossa (£15), it is the chef's favourite dish.
Favoured suppliers in East Anglia include Fen Farm for butter and Baron Bigod, White Wood Dairy for St Jude, and Pump Street Bakery for bread. Seafood is often from Framlingham-based A Passion for Seafood – brown shrimps dusted with semolina and deep-fried to eat whole (£8), or a fat Loch Fyne scallop, served in its shell with artichoke passato and ‘nduja (£9.50) – while London-based Cobble Lane Cured is the go-to for charcuterie.
A Marsala-drenched tiramisù (£8) is a ‘pick-me-up' fixture on the short-and-sweet dessert menu. The wine list, shaped by Liberty Wines, is simple too, roaming Italy to offer the likes of a bright Sicilian Fiano or Pugliese Primitivo by the glass, 500ml carafe or bottle.
An average spend per head of £35 comes from 40 appropriately spaced covers. With the 10pm curfew cancelling relays, the three front of house staff serve 15-20 fewer guests than forecast on a busy night. A characterful 16-cover private dining room and small window bench are shut too. However, Watson and Walpole are confident that strong early support for their restaurant will help the team face whatever wintry times lie ahead with a dose of Italian allegria.
Watson and Walpole, 3 Church Street, Framlingham, Suffolk IP13 9BQ
From the menu
- Mortadella, gnocco fritto, Gorgonzola fonduta £8.50
- Coppa, fresh fig, Treviso, chestnut honey dressing £8
- Chargrilled octopus, Venetian potatoes, salsa verde £8.50
- Wood-roasted beef brisket, olive oil and Parmesan potato puréé, cavolo nero £18
- Hake, brodo di crostacei, fregola, crab aïoli £19
- Pappardelle, venison ragù £17
- Wood-roasted apple passato, chilled zabaglione, amaretti £7.50
- Vanilla panna cotta, wood-roasted Victoria plums £7.50
- Baron Bigod, baked quince, linguette £9.50
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