Try lavender and chocolate doughnuts and gourmet meat grills at revamped country pub
PUBLISHED: 19:30 26 November 2019
This gastropub in north Norfolk has a brand new chef and a menu brimming with prime, locally sourced dishes including Holkham estate venison and freshly landed fish.
As the coastline whips around from Hunstanton, the North Sea wind blowing sand across the salty dunes, settled into a crook just ahead of Brancaster (famed, of course, for its mussels) is Thornham.
A curious little spot is this. If Burnham Market is 'Chelsea on Sea', surely Thornham is its 'Cotswold' cousin. All stone flint fronted cottages. Welly-clad walkers. Ruddy-cheeked families wrapped in deep woollen scarves and bobble hats.
It is curious, not in an odd sense, but because rather marvellously it has become somewhat of a mecca for food on the north Norfolk coast. Within minutes you can find yourself eating fish and chips at Eric's or hunting for heritage apples at Drove Orchard. There's the wonderful deli. The Orange Tree. The Lifeboat. Titchwell Manor is a short drive away.
And now, setting out its stall amongst this bevvy is The Chequers. The pub, owned (as is The Lifeboat) by Mark and Rachel Harrod, isn't new. Anyone familiar with the area knows that. But changes have been afoot. Some are subtle. An unused bar tap has been transformed into a cocktail bar space. The kitchen now has a diminutive pass giving a glimpse into the engine room.
Others are a tide change. The most notable in this soothing grey, chic industrially-lit country inn, being the appointment of a brand new head chef - one who is breathing new life into the menus.
Jordan Bayes is alumni of Lee Bye, chef patron of award-winning sister hotel and restaurant Tuddenham Mill in north Suffolk. Championed by his mentor for five years, where he honed his skills in foraging, butchery, saucery (sorry, not of the magical kind) and more, Jordan, once a keen fledgling, has now flown the nest and taken the reigns of kitchen in Thornham. And he's already making a flutter with locals and visitors who've been impressed by the changes he's instilled under the guidance of Lee.
Launched just last week in a bid to differentiate The Chequers from The Lifeboat, the menu sings of Norfolk produce and heritage, supporting local brewers, fisherman, game estates, farmers and even chocolatiers.
Jordan and his team are making everything from scratch, from sauces to breads and ice creams. But, says the young, keen chef, they don't want to be too clever. "I'd rather put three or four things on a plate," he reveals. "I love food and I love eating out and trying different things. I'm so passionate about just getting great ingredients and making the most of them. We're getting fish from Gurneys up the road and Staith. Obviously Holkham estate venison. Meat from Arthur Howell butchers. As my time progresses we will get more and more people that we know and can use. And it's about using what's around us. The blackberries and elderberries in the garden. Samphire and sea vegetables from the beach. It's all about taste and cooking from scratch. There's a method behind everything. It's an intense workload but that's what I love. But most important is I want to keep it simple, make the flavours really shine,"
And shine they do.
There are nibbles. Norfolk White Lady cheese is given the Greek treatment with a drizzle of village honey and crumble of cashew nuts. Spanking fresh sea bass is cured ceviche style, cut with brackish cornichons and a pinch of samphire salt, and elevated with slithers of red grape. And house cured duck is freckled with feta and mint.
The menu is clean and uncomplicated. Unfettered by superfluous additions cluttering plates. Take just two of the starters for example. Pigs' cheeks, so deeply braised they cut like a fine pate or warm French rillettes, are simply glazed with their own juices and served atop a sweet onion puree with nibbles of crackling, oh yes.
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Then there's the smoked haddock, from the fish shack up at Drove Orchard. Anointed with a slick of Wherry rarebit and crispy leek straws, there is nothing to detract from the beauty of the smoker's craft. All is there to enhance. To accentuate the star ingredient.
Talking of star ingredients, we can steer you in the direction of the Holkham venison chop, with a Josper rendered gnawable bone at its edge, served with a collapsing roasted onion wibbling under the weight of truffled gravy. A golden fondant potato and briefly charred wedge of cabbage are there for the mopping.
Look too, to the pub's 'surf and turf'. Melting pork, accompanied by scallops cooked to sticky, crisp umami goodness on one side, retaining a buttery underbelly. A clever pairing of blackened buttered endive lends a bitter edge to the dish, while apple puree acts as a chimney sweep, chasing away all the residuals on the palate, leaving a clean, crisp, tart note.
Finish with the excellently judged and not-at-all-greasy mini doughnuts, generously coated in powdered sugar given a beautiful floral essence from Heacham lavender, married with a deep, delectable, naughty sauce made with East Anglian bean-to-bar Tosier chocolate. Mesmerising.
There are good things at the bar too. Big name brewers have been dropped in favour of local drops from Panther and Moon Gazer, and manager Stephen - a true barsmith, has been concocting his own soft drinks and cocktail mixers, from fragrant slightly tannic lavender and lemon, to his own blend coffee syrup.
If you love walks. If you love the big broad Norfolk skies. If you have a thing for great food and interesting pubs, maybe it's time to check this place out.