Is this the most exclusive restaurant in Suffolk?
- Credit: Archant
Forage Kitchen has just 20 seats and is conjuring up some of the most inventive food you’ll discover in the east of England.
If you go down to the woods today - you might find a gourmet dining experience.
It does't have a sign. Indeed, when I drove along the country track to Forage Kitchen, I thought I'd gotten lost and had the urge to lay a trail of breadcrumbs (lest I end up in the oven of a mythical witch).
Happening upon an orange farmhouse (check) and a courtyard (check)- the landmarks given to me by restaurant owner Mel Evans - I yanked on my handbrake, and spotted through the glass-sided outbuilding a flurry of activity. Steam. Pots and pans in motion. Trays of cookies coming out of the oven. Phew. It's an unusual proposition is Forage Kitchen. Not only is it pretty well hidden, being based on the Rougham Estate, just moments from Blackthorpe Barn. But it's not a restaurant as you and I would know it.
Every single menu, is a tasting menu. Whether lunch or dinner. The offering changes every single month with (many now regular) diners being treated to 10 intricately conceived dishes, all rooted in the seasons. Visit on the first Thursday of the month and you'll be treated to the chefs' experimental menu. An incredible £40 for 10 courses as conjured from the minds of inventive young cooks Ryan Edgeworth and Ricky Withers.
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It's become so popular, the 20 seat restaurant can prove difficult getting into.
Not bad for a project which was at first a bit of a spin-off for Mel who caters for all the conferences, weddings and events at Blackthorpe Barn.
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"We converted this little barn on the estate and we look after the house too," Mel reveals. "That was about a year ago. We needed a new kitchen for the summer but making one for a three month period seemed a bit of a waste. So we thought we could use it for courses, events and private dining."
Forage Kitchen's launch coincided with the Christmas craft markets at Blackthorpe last year. "We started doing lunches from Thursday to Sunday in December. It was so popular that in January and February we started dinners with a chefs' table night on the first Thursday of the month, so guests come in and get 10 courses of experimental food and a sheet for scoring. They find that quite fun as the chefs actually cook in the restaurant and serve and explain each dish. The most common compliment we get from customers, especially guys, is they would never have ordered half to two thirds of the items they had, and it's always the most unexpected dishes they like the most."
'Experiments' have included fish with rhubarb juice, bacon ice cream served with pancakes and candied bacon (Mel calls this the Porn Star breakfast and it was served with a martini shot), mackerel with meadowsweet and kohlrabi and, most recently, a bergamot parfait.
Regular dining evenings (£49) for 10 courses, are a perfectly honed version of dishes from the experimental nights, with every single element, from ice creams and breads to sauces being crafted from scratch on the premises in what is a true labour of love.
In fact, as I watch Ricky and Ryan cook, I note upwards of eight elements on each dish. Blimey!
The keen chefs forage on the estate, use Rougham shot game when in season, and source the very finest regional produce to make each plate the best it can be.
They even have a growing 'pod' at the back of the eatery where they're churning out herb and flower cuttings. Mel offers me a sprig of Mexican marigold, which bursts in my mouth with a zingy, tangerine-like hit. It almost tastes like Cointreau. Then there's the wasabi rocket. Spicy! It's touches like these which give Forage Kitchen an edge. The sky's the limit when it comes to menu planning, and having access to unique ingredients such as these only enhances what the team can offer.
"What we wanted to do with this," adds Mel, "was to create somewhere we wanted to eat ourselves. We wanted to let the food talk for itself. The service style is quite relaxed and the environment is very informal. A lot of people say you can't compare it to anywhere else. It's not a chef's table, it's a restaurant. We're exclusive by the fact it's only 20 seats. But we were keen to make it inclusive and the price reflects that. If you have a tasting menu at £100 you immediately cut out so many people who wouldn't dream of spending that!"
Dishes Ricky and Ryan have worked their magic on for December include:
1. A canape of curry spiced pumpkin with sweet and sour cranberry.
2. Pork belly rillettes with chanterelle picallili and homemade bread with chicken fat butter.
3. Pigeon brined in a smoke solution with Savoy cabbage puree and salt and vinegar Brussels sprouts, pickled shallots and roasted pigeon sauce.
4. Salt baked celeriac, smoked over hickory wood with sliced onions cooked in bone marrow, with beef fat croutons, beef fat scratchings and wild mushroom ketchup.
5. Venison shoulder braised for 12 hours in Adnams Ghost Ship with sauerkraut, turnip and Marmite puree and pearl barley broth, with reduced liquor and puff barley cracker.
6. Bergamot parfait with Clementine marmalade, sour apple Granny Smith puree, Italian meringue and dehydrated Mexican marigold powder.
The duo are currently working through all their menus from this year, to present their 'best of 2019' dinners in January 2020 - sure to be one of the hottest dining tickets in Suffolk next year.
"It's going amazingly well," says Mel, who also runs cookery classes and foraging sessions with an expert from the site. "We cannot wait to see what next year brings."