Dramatic new direction for award-winning Suffolk restaurant

Chef's Justin Sharpe and James Caan Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Chef's Justin Sharpe and James Caan Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The dining experience is completely different now at Good Food Guide and Michelin Bib Gourmand favourite Pea Porridge.

Cabrito goat tagine with pumpkins, prune and coriander Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Cabrito goat tagine with pumpkins, prune and coriander Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Lockdown has irrevocably changed our dining landscape. Some restaurants, pubs and cafes have been lost. Others have adapted and evolved their offerings in order to survive.

And some, like Justin and Jurga Sharp’s Pea Porridge in Bury St Edmunds (known for its bold, no-nonsense, unfrilly, ‘proper’ cooking), have taken the prolonged period of closure as an opportunity to start afresh.

If you traverse Cannon Street anytime between Thursday and Saturday, your senses will pick up the unmistakable, heady aromas of the southern Mediterranean, north Africa, Spain. An experience only heightened by stepping foot inside Pea Porridge, where Justin has switched his focus to transforming the finest, small-scale, artisanal ingredients into Moorish-inspired cuisine. Think slow-braised meats, sparkling fresh fish, oven-charred flatbreads, sweet, aromatic spices, vegetables melting into olive oil, rosewater.

“After 11 years of trading, it was a good time to be able to step back and rethink what we were doing and where we are going,” says Justin. “We never thought we could move the goal post and change the whole ethos of what we’re doing - we have so many regular customers coming back for the same core dishes. But lockdown gave us this opportunity. If we couldn’t change then, we’d never change.”

Loch Fyne king scallop Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Loch Fyne king scallop Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Bringing the exotic, yet familiar tastes of Moorish-influenced countries into his kitchen was far from a stretch for the chef, who says it’s the cuisine he’s most drawn to when cooking for himself, family and friends. “We all love eating a bit of Spanish, Portuguese, North African, Turkish and Levantine food. This has been so exciting, it really has. And it’s given us a sort of education as we were learning as we went along all the time, stumbling across new spices and ingredients. A lot of people have said to us it feels like they’re on holiday in those countries when they’re eating.”

Something that hasn’t changed is Justin’s commitment to only putting the finest ingredients he can on the plate.

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“We’re trying to buy directly from farms and producers,” he reveals. “At the minute I’m buying goat from Cabrito. He takes on dairy billies and rears them for the meat. Goat tends to lend itself to all those spices and flavours. We’re selling it in lots of different guises, from braises to kibbehs, and osso bucco style with preserved lemons.

“The seafood we’re getting from Mike Warner at A Passion for Seafood is incredible. I’ve been working with Mike on other bits and bobs over the years and he’s now supplying restaurants and helping out skippers. His knowledge is second-to-none – he knows everything there is to know about seafood the length and breadth of Britain. And I’m trying to use as much as possible from Felixstowe Ferry. The wild seabass at the moment is phenomenal. Next level. I just had Dover soles coming in live an hour-and-a-half after being plucked from the sea!”

Sourdough flatbreads with pea hummus and pumpkin tirshi Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Sourdough flatbreads with pea hummus and pumpkin tirshi Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

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Justin’s menu changes frequently but, much like his curried sweetbreads became a smash hit never to be removed, there is one dish that looks likely to stick around.

Basque style baked cheesecake with green figs poached in eusebio syrup Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Basque style baked cheesecake with green figs poached in eusebio syrup Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

“Everybody is raving about the stuffed squid. I use Spanish black pudding, morcilla. They make it with rice so it’s quite stiff. Then we flavour it up with Berber spices and a bit of coriander and stuff it into the whole squid, sealed with the tentacles at the end, roasting it in the oven. That’s definitely our best-selling dish at the moment.”

Another recent success has included a Moorish fish soup made by reducing lobster shells and soup fish down with spices, finished with harissa and peppers. Lamb sweetbreads have been skewered and served up with labneh, z’ataar and tahini. There have been nibbles of duck gizzard pastilla and a pumpkin puree – the vegetable slowly cooked to breaking point under water and oil, and forked into with cumin, caraway, coriander, paprika, yoghurt and parsley.

Plump Loch Fyne scallops have been drenched in seaweed and sumac butter. Wild rabbit turned into delicate koftas. And aubergine cooked low and slow with tomato, onions, sumac and lemon, topped with Greek cheese, olive oil and mint.

As for desserts, think saffron rice pudding, figs poached in rosehip syrup with angel hair pastry, and a deep, dark chocolate and tahini pudding served up with an ‘outrageously good’ (according to one customer) pistachio custard.

Many key parts of the new dishes, or elements of them, are cooked in the Bertha oven over open flames, weaving a thread of smoke through the menu.

Something Justin’s especially proud of are the new flatbreads, fired to order. “We used to bake focaccia twice a day and front of house staff would serve it out. But we can’t have food sitting in a room now -we have to have everything coming out of the kitchen. All our flatbreads are baked on the stone in the Bertha and we’re so happy with them. It’s the right recipe and the right flour. Where we used to serve everyone a pea and ham croquette at the beginning of a meal, now everyone gets flatbread with pea hummus. It’s a cross between a pitta and a lavash, made with a sourdough starter. They are crazy good when they come out of the oven.

“This week we’ve developed a couple of new ideas with the flatbreads too – some new nibbles. Duck hearts with spicy date butter, fried over the top. And another is Don Bocarte anchovies over the hot bread. I think they are the finest anchovies you can put in your mouth. They’re very expensive but so worth it. Last Christmas we spent time in Alicante and were talking about what to do on Christmas Day. I said, ‘let’s go to a deli and buy as many tins of anchovies as we can find and have an anchovy tasting in our hotel’. We both agreed Don Bocarte were the best!”

“Hitting the reset button” has, Justin says, put a fire in his belly. And that sense of newness and fresh beginnings has only been enhanced by the chef having his old sparring buddy and former head chef, the award-winning James Caan back beside him – the two of them running the entire kitchen operation, from prep and cooking to washing up.

“It’s been fantastic. He expressed an interest and wanted to come back on board. He was excited by the food we were doing. We’ve just got so many ideas between us. We know each other so well and I trust him and his talent. It’s been great to hit the ground running with a bang instead of building up and finding our feet. We are both loving it. There’s a lot of good energy here.”

Try the new menu for yourselves. The restaurant is open from Thursday to Saturday for lunch and for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays with some tables available outside for anyone who isn’t comfortable ‘dining in’ yet.

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