Shaking things up a bit
Dining at The Northgate, Bury St Edmunds
The Hungarian Tokaji is the obvious pairing, the wine’s layers of dried fruit and honey and its spark of acidity predictably perfect with a lemon tart – but how much more off-beat and unexpected is bar manager Lewis Dowling’s ice-cold fig leaf pisco sour with its froth of egg white and puckering lime juice tempered by a barbecued fig caramel. It fizzes and enlivens and freshens, changes things up, cuts like a razor through the sweetness of the tart. As head chef Greig Young says, as he fleetingly ignites the fig leaves on Lewis’ serving tray: “It’s a bit of fun isn’t it?”
That phrase crops up a lot talking to Greig. Settled into his new post at The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds having moved from the Chestnut Group’s sister property in Moulton, The Packhorse Inn, Greig is determined to inject “a bit of fun”. He wants to “break down barriers, not be exclusive” and to build the reputation of this restaurant with rooms as a place for “good food and drink, nothing pretentious”. He’s working with Lewis to shake up the relationship between bar and kitchen too. Why not pair cocktails with food rather than wine? Why not flip things round and have customers choose their cocktail first, and have the kitchen suggest a dish that complements it?
The idea is a work in progress, so for now I book a seat at the Chef’s Table for a bit of fun. And it is fun. I find myself zoning out of conversations about who’s done what to whom on Love Island, or pending GCSE results, or the grinding summer holiday ‘why won’t you take me to Ikea’ refrain, preferring to listen in to the kitchen chat and observe how Greig leads his team with a gentle command that gets response. It’s a good-humoured, calm place, and remains so even when checks are on for the table of 11 on the terrace.
We have the Taste of East Anglia menu, a seven-course (bread and a pre-dessert make it nine) homage to local, each course titled according to the precise location of the key ingredient. I’m told it is going down well, and this Wednesday evening snapshot suggests that’s true. Eight of the 10 Chef’s Table seats are booked and guests are having either the seven-course or four-course menu. They could have gone à la carte, or at lunchtime chosen from the set menu (£16 for two courses, £19 for three), or from the separate list of salads and sandwiches. They could have eaten in the newly brightened dining room, in the bar, or al fresco.
We scrape salty, homemade butter onto sourdough baked with Pakenham flour. The daily loaf has been made today
by apprentice chef, Morraine Pepper. It’s nutty, tangy, and we eat more than we perhaps should. We romp through the early courses. A tartlet of Fen Farm Baron Bigod cheese (this is the Bungay course), with slivers of raw turnip, is a memorable mouthful of sweet-salty cheese and peppery turnip that folds deliciously into egg-enriched pastry. Greig calls the Elveden course “just a posh potato salad”. The terrine is anything but. The natural sweetness of waxy Suffolk Peer potatoes is a foil for smoky black garlic purée and the kick of pickled mustard seeds. A translucent sliver of pickled shallot covers a fragile quail’s egg, and a dusting of cep powder finishes things off. It’s harmonious, pretty, creative.
By the time we reach the East Coast course the pace steadies, and we linger over a standout mackerel dish. The skin is razorscored edge to edge to prevent curling, and the is fillet cured briefly before being seared on one side, just long enough to crisp the skin. The accompanying flavours – fresh parsley purée, poached gooseberries, a tzatzikilike yoghurt with cucumber and apple – make this a masterclass in balancing temperature and flavour. Yum. A dense, coarsecut Cumberland sausage of wild rabbit from Denham Estate follows. A suspicion of fennel peps up the mild-flavoured meat, and layers of cured lardo run through it and over it like a blanket of juiciness. Vividgreen peas and broad beans give freshness and colour. Chefs huddle round the plate at the pass. This dish has made the cut after three months development
and it’s worth an Instagram post.
Vegetarian, and even vegan, black pudding is not that new, but I was born a meat-loving Lancastrian and I find this the most oxymoronic of dishes. The rich slice, dark against tender artichoke hearts, roast apple purée, pickled mustard seeds and a sweet-sour Aspall gastrique, looks like the real thing and is heady with the flavours you’d expect of mace, coriander, fennel and tiny crunchy cubes of raw apple. But it is made of black rice rather than pig’s blood. It’s brave, fits the zeitgeist (four of Greig’s à la carte starters are plant-based), and is the sort of Marmite dish that will get people talking.
We quickly revert to meat. Quail – a brace from Fakenham – are roasted whole in hay. I first meet them during their nineminute rest at the pass (after nine minutes in the oven). Greig ignites their bed briefly, for just long enough to get a ‘wow’ and for a waft of smokiness to curl round the birds, before carving. The flesh is juicily tender, a joy to eat alongside the silkiest, sweetest carrot purée and butter-rich roasted carrots. How refreshing for these two simple accompaniments to be deemed sufficient – a pile of mash and pool of gravy could be delicious in another context, but here would add nothing.
Greig or one of the team brings each dish out, explains it briefly, chats a bit. It breaks down barriers, he says, and he enjoys connecting like this. “It’s easier to cook for people, and to be cooked for, if everyone is relaxed,” he says. So true.
The meal finishes with a flourish. A chocolate ‘cigar’, the finest tuile curled into a canolo that is packed with the deep flavours of black forest gateau, is a playful nod to a classic. It’s bitter and sweet, the core of buttermilk ice cream surprises, and the preserved cherries have a zippy sharpness. We eat it with our hands of course, and it collapses deliciously, a prelude to a seductive lemon tart that is rich with the yolks of Rattlesden duck eggs, wobbles languidly in its crisp pastry case
. . . and that is so much fun to eat alongside Lewis’ barbecued fig leaf pisco sour.
LEFT: The Taste of East Anglia menu is an homage to local produce
ABOVE: Greig leads his team with goodhumour and calmness
Fen Farm Baron Bigod cheese tartlet with slivers of raw turnip
A terrine of waxy Suffolk Peer potatoes, black garlic puree and quails egg, and cep powder