Culture: A taste tour to savour says Rhoda Morrison
Rhoda Morrison takes a seat at the chef’s table at The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds to sample all the region has to offer.
I have always been a big fan of themed menus, as blasphemous as it may be to the renowned restaurant critic.
I’d happily book a table at a mad hatter’s tea party or a cocktail bar where all the drinks are inspired by famous novels or even a French Revolution murder mystery where you piece together clues over coq au vin.
It’s a gimmick, of course it is, but I fall for it every time. . . hook, line and sinker.
The themed menu at The Northgate in Bury St Edmunds is much less extravagant, though just as appealing. It is centred around the Tastes of East Anglia – drawing inspiration from the region’s much-loved towns and villages, and taking diners on a whistle stop tour of all the best produce the area has to offer.
First stops are Pakenham and Bungay. The bread, made that day with flour from Pakenham watermill, is what everyone wants – crusty on the outside with just enough sponge and spring in the centre. Paired with Bungay’s Fen Farm butter, so fresh that the mousse-like consistency glides over the bread, it’s as delicious as good old bread and butter can get. With it is a small, subtle yet extremely satisfying Baron Bigod cheese, also from Fen Farm, and turnip tartlet, with hints of fresh lemon.
Sitting at the chef’s table, which gives me a front seat view of the food being cooked and dishes being built, it’s impossible to overlook the length of time it takes for each dish to be plated and perfected. It’s a brave way of cooking – completely transparent, allowing for no corner-cutting, mistake-making or dilly-dallying.
Though Scottish, chef Greig Young is clearly confident he knows his way around both the region and the kitchen and is willing to take his guests along for the ride.
As a pescatarian, Rattlesden is next on the tour for me while the meat eaters enjoy a quail and leg ragu from Fakenham’s Highfield Farm.
Instead, I’m treated to Rattlesden eggs with charred asparagus and goats curd. I’ve always been one to enjoy vegetables no matter how they’re cooked. I’m even one of those odd beings that is perfectly happy with a mushy brussel sprout or pale green broccoli stock. But in saying that, I know a good asparagus spear when I see (or rather, taste) one.
There’s the salty start and the crunchy finish, the kind that forces you to cram the whole spear into your mouth at once for fear that one little bite will take something away from the experience, and dipped in the egg yolk it’s a marvellous match.
The next two courses hail from Lowestoft, otherwise known as a pescatarian’s dream.
First is baked seabass with a mussel and parsley sauce and crispy potato strings, which the meat eaters at the table get to tuck into as well.
The fish, we are told, has been caught that very morning and no one disputes the claim after taking a bite. Flaking under the pressure of the fork, each chunk is cooked to that glorious shiny melt-in-the-mouth state. The mussel and parsley sauce is executed perfectly, with a perfect ratio of meat to liquid, leaving everyone requiring a spoon to make sure we all scoop up the last few drops on the bottom of the plate.
While everyone else gets whisked away to Stowupland for Red Poll beef with onions and IPA, which admittedly even catches my eye as it is brought to the table, I’m quite content staying in Lowestoft where bitter lemon hake is next on the menu.
Yet again the piece of fish stands alone, with absolutely no need for fancy toppings or trimmings. It’s bright white, with a crispy skin and I devour the lot before those around me have had the chance to make a dent in their beef.
I should mention that each course is paired with a wine that has been especially selected to go with the dish and is poured just moments before the plate is put down, letting guests know that staff really do have all bases covered.
The final stop of the tour is Assington, where the group is reunited over a show-stealing dessert of strawberry sorbet, sorrel ice cream, shortcake and meringue.
Not only is the dish a visual artwork in its own right – with the white meringue creating sharp angles over the summery pink sorbet and green ice cream – but each bite combines the sharpness of the strawberry with the bitter tones of the sorrel, and the softness of the ice cream with the crunch and crumble of
For that little extra something, the chef has prepared elderberry and buttermilk macarons – inspired by the Suffolk pink houses that are scattered throughout the county – to have on the side of our coffees. The colour, he tells us, was created by 14th century dyers who would mix elderberries with buttermilk to create the unmistakable hue – a tradition that is remembered and re-lived in every bite.
For someone like me who moved to East Anglia a mere nine months ago, the meal is an education, letting me in on all the culinary secrets of the region. For others, who have been here for much longer and perhaps have never left, it’s a reminder of the wonderful food that is on offer and a chance to take real pride in it.
Although very much focused on a theme, The Northgate’s Tastes of East Anglia menu has little need for any gimmick. Each dish is simplistic in look, giving the chance for the highly skilled cooking and delicious local produce to shine through, and it does – every time.
The Tastes of East Anglia menu is available as a four course lunch for £35, a five course dinner for £45 or a seven course dinner for £65.
With the five and seven courses, you can also opt for a wine pairing which costs £25 or £35.
The chef’s table is available to book by calling 01284 339604 or making a reservation at thenorthgate.com