“Strange but wonderful” - what’s it like to eat in a restaurant now
- Credit: Archant
Group food and drink editor Charlotte Smith-Jarvis ventures out for her first meal since winter.
I remember vividly the last time I ate out. There was frost on the ground. I had to wear my thickest, weather-beating tights. We nudged the heating up so high in the car that a film of condensation spread across the windowscreen.
Arriving (on invitation) at The Unruly Pig in Bromeswell with my family in tow felt strange but wonderful. Our first time ‘out out’ in months.
We quickly realised all the things we missed about dining out which had all but been forgotten. Perusing the menu online to whet our appetites. Wondering what to wear. Getting ready. Wearing heels (well my daughter and I anyway). There’s a kind of ceremony and ritual to eating in a restaurant you cannot replicate at home and it’s hard to describe the warm, fuzzy sensation that took over as soon as we put the key in the ignition to set off. Particularly for me – I’m fed-up of cooking now.
A number of measures have been put in place for both customer and staff safety at the pub. A sign at the front indicates a one-way system, and we noted we were to wash our hands before entering – something I always struggle to get my kids to do!
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The face of the restaurant inside is changed. Where there was an open bar area, now are swanky navy blue booths, allowing human traffic to pass safely by.
Before venturing in, a member of the front of house team waved a digital thermometer across each of our heads, much to our amusement. Thank god we weren’t late and sweaty.
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There was a fear in the industry that PPE could look too medical and ‘scary’ for diners, but actually, after the initial laughs/shock factor we barely noticed the staff at the Pig’s visors, which did look to be at the upper end of the scale. It was like being waited on by welders in aprons!
Making the most of the sunny day (following a week of near torrential rain) we opted to sit outside. The terrace had a pleasant buzz and had been arranged to allow at least 2m between parties. But we were drawn to the marquee over on the lawn. Festooned with lights and given a lift by potted plants donated from Botanica, it was a novel spot for lunch.
Aside from a metal bucket harbouring a flowering alpine specimen there was nothing on the table but a document detailing the ordering process. Water and menus arrived on a tray with a collapsible stand for us to decant ourselves, as did our drinks- serving us all was a good way for my 12-year-old to earn his pocket money. Serving staff were careful not to touch anything, minimising the amount of contact between them and us which was reassuring.
Ella (14) felt suitably grown up with her Garden Spritz – a non-alcoholic melee of Seedlip Garden, mint, sugar and soda that was almost savoury. We also tried the refreshing house-made watermelon spritz and tart passion fruit spritz – just the thing to cool down with.
Menus are single use and although we were told it was a reduced menu, there was plenty to choose from, including dairy and gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options, with the ingredients used planting us firmly in high summer.
A turn in the weather plus bare legs lead us back inside the pub where we thankfully managed to snag one of the new booths. I don’t know about you but I love a booth – it’s like having your own private dining space. And they hide a multitude of sins – from dates who want to have a cheeky kiss, to children with their grubby faces and questionable table manners. Each booth is thoroughly cleaned before and after each use and places you essentially in a ‘bubble’. The only contact (distanced) you have is with your server when they take your order, deliver and clear your food.
The booths have become extra wall space for owner Brendan’s growing art collection. Eclectic is the word. To the front of me four cartoonish moustachioed men (bought apparently for 20p each in Nicaragua), and to my right a framed pop-art style reimagining of the Michelin Man!
Like the drinks, food was delivered by tray and set on a collapsible table for us to serve ourselves, with notes to watch any hot plates.
After nibbles of warm bread with nutty brown butter and umami Marmite butter the children tucked into golden balls of arancini spiked with spicy n’duja sausage – a Calabrian speciality. Mr Jarvis was won over by a fresh, light ham hock Caesar salad, composed of crisp leaves, just the right amount of piquant dressing, and shredded porcine pieces.
I decided it was time to try the octopus, which has been a regular feature of head chef Dave Wall’s menu for the last couple of years in variations. It was a dish similar to this that won over our judges in the Eat Suffolk Food and Drink Awards in 2018, leading to The Unruly Pig being named Best Restaurant in the county. If the idea of eating octopus gives you the heebie jeebies I say just give it a go. The flavour is akin to the juicy, fatty part of a slow-cooked belly of pork, only with a firmer texture. It’s positively meaty and definitely not fishy. Here, the tender, charred tentacle with its curly, crispy, crackling-like end, was in harmony with a parsley oil, sweet miso and squid ink reduction, and a squid ink raviolo which, to my son’s disappointment didn’t ooze ink, but to my delight, was filled with n’djua and Parmesan.
In the middle, Ella and Ethan were really pleased with their braised beef shin ragu, which was so behemoth in size we boxed up half to take home. Al dente homemade rigatoni the colour of sunshine was coated in a slightly sweet, gently rich braise, with a tangle of truly melting beef, which had been cooked to the point where the fibres and gelatine were reduced to a buttery, unctuous consistency. It was just the right side on the richness scale but I felt could have done with a citrus-bright gremolata crumb on top to reach perfection.
With a lighter stomach, my other half decided to rip into the pub’s classic Piggy Sandwich which dosed him with more ham hock, squeezed between buttery sourdough with a trio of melting cheeses and onion marmalade. A side of thick hand cut chips rounded the meal off nicely – making good dunking vessels to explore everyone else’s plates.
I opted for the day’s special of Rendlesham venison loin which read like a dessert – coming with cherries, pistachio and chocolate. What a dish! And one which deftly demonstrated that despite often being associated with the ‘er’ game months, venison can and should be on menus year-round. There was a soft, succulent pink-middled loin, caramelised at its outer edges. The jus lingered with a bitter hit of cocoa, tempered by plump poached cherries and a wickedly good pistachio cream. Texture came from tiny buttered, seasonal turnips, and a cube of crumbed, braised venison, sticky from its own cooking liquor. A total triumph. And expertly matched by front of house manager Amy with a glass of Tuscan Caburnio, which enhanced every bite with its cherry heavy front notes and lingering essence of chocolate and smoke.
There was still room for pud. A light-as-air pave of Pump Street chocolate mousse on a feuilletine-textured base, balanced out by a salted caramel ice cream, which gave over muscovado acidity to cut through each bite. Also devoured was a wibbly, just-set panna cotta with roasted peach, peach gel and tangy strawberries.
What an absolute joy from start to finish. We left feeling refreshed, like we’d experienced a slice of normality. As long as the R rate remains low and restaurants such as this continue to adhere to strict safety guidelines I can see we’ll be getting back on the road much more often from now on.