Aldeburgh: White Lion Hotel brings a taste of France to the Suffolk coast

WITH more than a dozen stylish eateries in one small seaside town, coming up with a new concept for the restaurant at the newly reburbished White Lion Hotel in Aldeburgh was a tough call. Sheline Clarke spoke to head chef Jason Shaw about bringing a little “je ne sais quoi” to the Suffolk coast.

ALDEBURGH is bathed in sunshine and outside the White Lion, a handsome building fronting the much-loved shingle beach, are groups of people enjoying a game of boule. Charming.

It’s not until I see the signs for “moules and boules” inside the brasserie that I realise that this is all part of a wider picture to bring a subtle French twist to the goings on at this completely rejuvenated Suffolk hotel.

Part of the TA Hotel Collection (formerly Thorpeness and Aldeburgh Hotels), The White Lion has been transformed from a traditional and some might say rather tired retreat to a vibrant and stylish boutique hotel with bar and brasserie, function room and private dining.

Head chef Jason Shaw worked alongside general manager Peter Osborne to create a concept that would fulfill a niche in the market.

“We wanted to make it our own and come up with a completely new concept and a new style of menu to match,” said Jason.

“We are honoured by our surroundings and the produce we have literally on our doorstep, so everything is about Suffolk, but with a French style, a French twist if you like.”

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Jason has impressive credentials. He started his career at the five-star Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington and worked in some of London’s top hotels and restaurants before coming to Aldeburgh as head chef of the White Lion’s sister hotel The Brudenell, where he met his future wife.

The couple spent two years in her native South Africa where Jason vastly widened his experience by working as executive chef in charge of a brigade of 50 at the renowned Windmill Casino Hotel Bloemfontein.

After two years Jason decided to bring his family home and rang his former employers in Aldeburgh to see of there was an opening for him.

“We decided that the lifestyle and living were just as good here and when they told me they were going to ‘tinker’ with the White Lion we decided to come back,” he said.

Jason set to work on the menus ahead of the refurbishment, using the kitchens at the Thorpeness Hotel to create imaginative and contemporary dishes using Suffolk’s finest ingredients to be served in the new modern surroundings of the brasserie.

The menu offers fresh fish and local meat and game served with locally grown salads and vegetables and features dishes such as sweet chilli monkfish, honey glazed duck breast and vegetarian choices including sumptuous risottos and vegetable tarts. The signature Moules Mariniere, prepared with Aspall cider cream and served with frites is a great example of this unique fusion of Suffolk and French.

As well as the Bar and Brasserie menu, The White Lion also has a Prix Fixe menu du jour offering two courses for �10.50 or three for �14.50. It includes dressed Aldeburgh crab, Sutton Hoo chicken and nutmeg panna cotta with vanilla shortbread.

And while Jason’s food and the stylish new d�cor is attracting many visitors, a packed programme of events keeps people coming back time and again.

Of particular note are the Ladies Lunches that take place once a month. Guests are treated to a cooking demonstration by Jason in the hotel’s function room and then sit down to a three-course lunch in the brasserie. What started with a handful of inquisitive ladies now regularly attracts upwards of 90 loyal diners who enjoy the get-togethers as much as Jason does.

“The Ladies Lunches are precious,” he said. “They give me lots of feedback and great ideas, it’s a really vibrant event and there’s always a great atmosphere. “We set up the James Cable Room theatre style for the demonstrations and we often talk about menus and produce and suppliers and share tips and ideas.”

Elsewhere on the events calendar are occasions designed with seasonal produce in mind, such as asparagus week in May and Pimms and strawberries in June, as well as celebrations of Bastille Day, a seafront prom for the Queen’s Jubilee and a Thanksgiving Dinner.

Then there’s the boules championship. It all works rather well.

“We did a ‘soft’ launch before we opened with invited guests, friends and relative and I have to say it was an absolute nightmare,” laughs Jason. “We had the new menu and a new kitchen and it took us a while to get the logistics right; it was quite a learning curve. It was about going back to basics and getting them right before we could really start to build.”

That was 15 months ago and The White Lion certainly seems to work like a well- oiled machine these days.

“There are 14 or 15 other eateries in town so we had to find something unique and which stood us apart from the others. The Brudenell is about fine dining and they have their terrace so there’s lot of emphasis on the al fresco and we wanted to complement that with our own style and way of doing things.

“Coming back to the UK when we did was absolute blessed timing because it meant I had a real role to play in shaping the future of this place and helping build something we are all very proud of.”

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