Food review, The Anchor Nayland: “The most magical outdoor setting”

battered tofu with Korean barbecue sauce and pak choi

Korean barbecued tofu at The Anchor, Nayland - Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis

When I was last out near The Anchor at Nayland it was late summer, splashing about with the family on kayaks and paddleboards on the water, surrounded by tall grass, brambles and flower-covered river plants.
What a difference a few months makes. Approaching the inn (close to the Suffolk/Essex border), it’s not over-the-top to say the transformation of the outside space is breathtaking. Just a short while ago dining pods for household bubbles, and a huge greenhouse-type structure (The Orangery) were installed. A warm, inviting glow radiates from the riverside in the dark, made even more spectacular on our visit by a settling of thick fog across the ground, so the pods and glasshouse appeared to almost float.
The only downside of the new additions is they’ve taken over the car park, so you’ll have to find a spot on the road nearby. We didn’t struggle.
Bookings are being taken online, and you’ll get a call to enquire if any of your household have Covid symptoms a few days in advance, with a follow-up email the day before to double check if you’re still going. Fair enough - pubs and restaurants can scarcely afford no-shows at the moment.
On arrival if you’ve booked an outside table you’re asked to wait at the side door for a member of staff to scan your temperature. They were pretty swift about it, and didn’t leave us lurking in the dark for more than a minute.
We were led inside the glasshouse (which has a ramp if you have mobility issues) and to our rustic wooden table, close to the twinkling, mesmerising tree art installation in the centre of the room. 

I have to say, there are heaters in the space, but it was still a bit nippy. Most people wore jumpers or a light jacket. I was a plonker and wore a dress, no coat, no woolly, and felt a chill. Wrap up warm.
Menus are printed and left on the table, showcasing an array of smoked feasts (there is an onsite smokehouse), handmade pizzas, roasts, and brasserie-style fish, meat and veggie dishes.
To begin, warm breads studded with olives or seeds, served with butter and oil. For me there was Korean barbecue tofu with kimchi and pak choi. I’d thought it would be firm tofu, but what arrived was the silken version - an ingredient I generally avoid for its spookily wobbly texture. I needn’t have worried. The tofu, encased in a sheer skin of crisp tempura, melted in the mouth with gentle smoky flavours. Underneath, Korean barbecue sauce combined sweet and fiery in harmony, while the kimchi smacked my palate with a salty, sharp, fermented tang. The addition of pak choi with its juicy heart and charred, crunchy leaves, mellowed the whole plate. Lovely jubbly.
There were also chicken wings, served in a basket (which I usually loathe but this one was quite pretty - the kind of thing you might find in a French brocante filled with flowers). The wings were enormous, and moist under their crispy lemon and thyme coating. A lemon oil for dipping was good for lubricating the whole thing, as was the slaw on the side.
Classic prawn cocktail was as it should be. Lots of small prawns in a tart, creamy sauce, a couple of unsauced larger prawns all retro, hanging off the presentation glass. I liked the fact the salad was chopped, making it easier to eat. 

Prawn cocktail in a glass with salad and a slim miniature baguette

The Anchor at Nayland's prawn cocktail - Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis

Moving on and it was time to tackle the house specials. Mr J went for the Smokehouse signature burger which he rated an 8.5/10 on his own Suffolk burger tally. This corker of a stack layered a prime hand-pressed burger, bacon, pulled pork, hash brown, cheddar and pickles inside a brioche bun, with fries and slaw. Every single element was bang-on. The patty tasted of mature, properly hung beef and was deftly seasoned. Bacon was golden-edged. The pulled pork brought a sweetness. And the hash brown was basically the icing on the cake.

a large burger, stacked with bacon, cheese, pulled pork and salad, served with a pot of fries

The Smokehouse burger at The Anchor, Nayland - Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis

Our margherita pizza was a huge wheel of a thing, almost swallowing up the plate it was served on. The base had a great flavour, as did the sauce, which was sweet with tomato but with a savoury edge. And the kitchen had meted out just the right ratio of sauce to mozzarella. Peppery basil and tiny fresh tomatoes added a final flourish. 
I was mightily excited about my Smokehouse platter. I could choose two meats and one side, or upgrade for a few quid to three meats and two sides. Unsurprisingly I opted for the latter.

A cheese and tomato pizza garnished with baby tomatoes and basil

Fresh pizza at The Anchor in Nayland - Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis

It arrived on a canteen-style tray over branded paper. A Desperate Dan sized smoked beef rib glazed in barbecue sauce, a bucket of pulled pork, buttermilk chicken breast, fries and corn on the cob. 
I was asked if I wanted any sauce on the side and requested barbecue. A pot of the house barbecue glaze would have been nice...I got sachets of Heinz, although I don’t know if Covid regulations have done away with pots of this and that at the moment.
The rosemary fries, while hot and tasty, didn’t have a speck of rosemary on them.
And the pulled pork, although tender and oozing with a sweet Southern-style barbecue dressing, was lukewarm. There is quite a walk from the kitchen though, through the winter cold, so I imagine some of that was down to the weather. 
The stars of this show were the rib and chicken. Beef shortrib is one of my favourite cuts. Cooked down slowly it sings with the most beefiest of beefy flavours as it did here. There was a kiss of smoke, but not so much it overtook the flavour of the meat, which quite literally fell from the bone under the touch of a fork. The glaze around it was lip-smackingly syrupy and salty - very moreish. I really did want more of that.

A beef rib, pulled pork, corn on the cob and fried chicken served on a tray

The Smokehouse platter at The Anchor in Nayland - Credit: Charlotte Smith-Jarvis

Battered lightly in the same coating as the wings, the butterflied buttermilk chicken breast had a note of Cajun about it, and was super-moist, and succulent.
The healthiest part of the platter, the corn, still had some bite to it, but would have benefitted from a pat of salted or maybe flavoured, butter oozing across the top.
There was no room at all for dessert, but we could have had honeycomb cheesecake, Christmas pudding, chocolate panettone bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding or several other yummy sounding things.

Mr J really rather liked the on tap Silver Adder ale from Mauldons Brewery in Sudbury. The colour of pale straw, it delivered a rounded, hoppy flavour with a lingering bitterness that went really well with his burger. With my meat feast I chose the house Malbec. Plummy, with a hint of blackcurrant, the backbone of spice and leather in this wine was hearty enough to stand up to my banquet of beef and pork.

We received a warm welcome at every point, from arrival and temperature taking, to delivery of drinks and food. There was a longer wait than we’re used to, but they have a lot more procedures to think about so naturally that didn’t bother us. We were just glad to be out out.

My husband would like me to say the burger, but actually it was the tofu. An example of how vegetarian food can be so rammed with texture and flavour you really do not miss the meat.

All told, our meal was £117 for bread, three starters, four large main courses (mine upgraded) two glasses of wine, a beer and three cokes.

Experiencing eating under the lights of the tree installation here is not to be missed this winter - it’s something the whole family will enjoy. Food is tasty, portions are generous, and the setting is wonderful. If you’re after romance the dining pods, right on the river’s edge, look like a good bet.