Review: The Swan at Lavenham - 'Refined French dining in a beautiful setting'
- Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis
“Oh, the ground’s still warm!” I exclaimed to my Friday night dining partner and mate Jo – who’d spent the journey over to Lavenham worrying about a chinking sound in her new car. She was tentatively looking around the tyres and exhaust for signs of anything requiring an expensive trip to the garage.
“Why’ve you taken your shoes off?” She glanced back with a grimace as I hopped on the spot.
“I can’t walk in heels anymore. And we’re parked on a hill!”
We had, you see, not looked properly at our arrival information for dinner at The Swan, tackling a 50-point turn in the car park behind the iconic building and deciding to park on-road without realising there’s another car park on the other side of the road. Do your homework if you’re heading here!
Slipping my strappy sandals and mask back on as we neared the hotel, I stepped into the stunning building, recalling it must have been five years since I last visited for afternoon tea with my mum.
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It has an air of elegance, The Swan. There’s no showy artwork or ostentatious décor. All eyes are drawn to the magnificence of this piece of living history – with its timbered walls and exposed stone and brickwork.
We passed the less formal dining room and lounges (where the Mess Hall 487 menu offers bites such as burgers and cod and chips) into The Gallery. At this point it hit me that Suffolk doesn’t really have many fine dining restaurants – does it?
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There are lots of cool neighbourhood eateries and gastropubs, but I can think of fewer than 10 restaurants and hotels that match The Swan for grandeur and occasion. It’s all plush carpet, heavy drapes, ornate windows, wrought-iron chandeliers, pressed linens and flickering candles.
Very romantic, I prod my friend...the melody of Elton John’s Your Song piping through the speakers.
We were there to try the food of new French head chef Olivier Bertho.
It was clear, as we sat down, that there was a Gallic influence in the kitchen. A menu of simple compositions that heavily rely on the quality of the produce, on-point cooking of meat and fish, and faultless saucing rather than kitchen wizardry.
There’s a Menu Cygne priced at £28 for two courses or £35 for three (including moules, salad nicoise, skate wing, steak, mousse au chocolate and the like). But our interest was piqued by the a la carte offering.
To begin we were brought a platter of homemade bread and soft salted butter. Unfortunately the bread proved rather dense and heavy - and much too salty.
But all was forgiven as the starters arrived.
My picked Cromer crab salad (£10) consisted of a medley of white and brown meat, bound in a creamy but refreshing dressing with a touch of herbs about it. It sat on a bed of salad leaves, sweet compressed apple and kohlrabi, which brought a little mustardy bite. A wonderful summer dish, and matched well with the suggested glass of Picpoul, which sliced through the shellfish with gooseberry acidity, guava and lime.
Jo’s golden seared, well-seasoned scallops (£11) were quiveringly soft, and classically presented with a shard of pancetta, lifted by a citrus-packed, moreish gremolata dressing which made a nice change to the ubiquitous pea puree.
She was equally enamoured by her cornfed chicken supreme (£19), which came with a really very good sweetcorn puree, savoury jus, sliver of crisp layered potato, and the most delicious smoked ham and pea croquette. It was a very well-balanced plate – the saucing excellent.
And this theme continued over on my side of the table, where a glossy oxtail and red wine jus gave weight to slices of meltingly pink, char-edged beef medallions (£28). Absolute perfection. The dinky baby vegetables that came with it were cooked al dente, adding much-needed bite. And the addition of freckles of tarragon shoots gave the beef an aniseedy edge.
Imbibed alongside was a glass of Primitivo – one of my favourite red wines and a great partner in crime with beef. It is the most gorgeous, easy-drinking expression of the Zinfandel grape, bursting over with jammy plum and bags of vanilla, with a smoky violet finish.
Jo’s dessert was cheesily given a 12 out of 10. “Oh it’s just so yum!” she declared. In fact, she hasn’t stopped talking about it since. Chocolate fondant, possibly THE dessert of the noughties, can be a cook’s worst nightmare because (thanks to shows like Masterchef) everyone knows it should burst under the prod of a spoon, into a pool on the plate. And this one (£8.50) did - the warm, barely set centre swirling with soft peanut parfait and crunchy popcorn brittle. It was, surprisingly, not too rich. A very accomplished dessert.
Now I went for the strawberry and elderflower trifle (£8). I’m not a fan of this pud – the idea of it just brings up too many memories of tinned fruit, soggy sponge and sloppy cream. But, judging by the calibre of the previous courses, I threw caution to the wind.
I needn’t have worried because what arrived was a bit of a surprise and a delight. A whimsical take on the usually sherry-drowned party piece of the 70s.
Served up in a Kilner jar, beneath cream and berries were a layer of strawberry custard, and a sponge set into a zippy elderflower jelly, with little explosions of popping candy in every bite. So good in fact that you shouldn’t be surprised if, in a few weeks, you see the recipe on my Weekend Cook page.
We finished with cheese (£10), which had been brought to room temperature, allowing the melting Norfolk White Lady and Baron Bigod to relax into the plate a bit. They came with Norfolk Mardler and spicy Binham Blue. It would have been nice to see a harder East Anglian cheese on there too – smoked Norfolk Dapple, or maybe aged Shipcord. We both liked the selection of accompaniments. A tangy but not too sweet fig chutney, truffle honey (bliss), shaved celery, red grapes, crackers and fruit bread. Our only criticism would be that the fruit bread felt a little dry and stale. It could have done with being toasted.
Overall a relaxing meal of flavoursome food, that definitely lived up to expectations.
A final plea from me. When you go to places like this, don’t be quiet! The dining room was, apart from Elton, spookily silent when we arrived, despite being nearly half full. Restaurants are meant to be full of laughter and joy and conversation. But when you enter somewhere that’s glossy and linen-lined there’s a tendency to revert to schooldays. Back straight. Mouth shut. The mood definitely improved later in the evening as some ‘louder’ tables arrived, encouraging more people to natter. I’m not saying you should whip your shirt off and start singing, but don’t be afraid to talk. Our restaurants have been quiet for far too many months over lockdown. Enjoy them!
Book at theswanatlavenham.co.uk