Southwold: Sutherland House Hotel and Restaurant
IAN COLLINS Sutherland House is now a place for a serious dinner rather than a light snack.
One of the mysteries of Southwold - at least in the past dozen years when I've been a part-time resident - is why the town's most beautiful building has never quite worked as a restaurant. But at long last the puzzle - and the problem - appears to have been solved.
Sutherland House, that imposing pile on the left just after you've turned the corner into the High Street, was one of the few great buildings to survive the devastating fire of 1659 after which our premier resort was pronounced Britain's first official disaster zone.
No sooner had one calamity been weathered than another struck - through recurring war over mercantile profit with the Dutch. Southwold was often awash with naval forces and casualties.
In 1672 Sutherland House was the HQ of the Earl of Sandwich, second in command to the Duke of York (and future James II) at what became the bloody Battle of Sole Bay. The earl was famously late for the fateful engagement, having been detained, it is said, by the charms of a serving wench. Maybe it was the hearty Suffolk cooking. Alas, the earl went on to number among many casualties of the deadly stalemate, his battered body being washed up weeks later and recognisable only from the finery on his jacket. The ghost of the wench is said still to wander and wail on the anniversary of the battle. Very likely the earl had left without settling his bill...
Anyway this wonderful survival, with magnificent ceiling beams and plaster mouldings, should have been the perfect setting for a grand - or just a good - restaurant. And what a great position for a spot of independent competition in Adnamstown.
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But middling restaurants have come and gone. Perfect as Southwold is in every other way, my favourite coastal eating places have clustered in Aldeburgh (since my all-time tops, Harrison's, on the A12 at Kelsale, was returned to a private house). Just lately, very bright stars have emerged via the Anchor at Walberswick and the Earsham Street Café in Bungay. Now I spy a third.
Why, it's the Sutherland House Hotel and Restaurant, as opened just before Christmas by Anna and Peter Banks.
I'd waited for the verdicts of friends and neighbours, and soon the recommendations were coming in thick and fast - along with the warning that booking was already advisable. So, having bagged a table for four for a birthday supper, I tested to the limit the site's early reputation for good value by ordering a £32 bottle of moutard grand cuvee champagne. So much for the tip that we could get away with a feast at £20 a head.
But here's a plus: we were offered tap water as well as the bottled stuff. Quite right too - but how rare.
My companions tried tapas-size starters at £2.50 a morsel - mini fish and chips and a savoury panacotte being the favourites. I went for a big bowl of ham and cabbage soup at £3.95 and delicious it was too.
The selection of breads was splendid, though maybe it was the champagne followed by the reserve riojca (£19.95) that made me mishear one version as “blue cheese and white chocolate”. But I noted that the chocoholics in the party promptly demolished it.
I thought the pricing was odd too, until realising I was reading the Food Miles of each offering in a venue laudably committed to real, local fare.
For main courses we all had something different - my wild boar sausages from Brampton, on a bed of mashed potato and onion gravy was a wild success at £9.80. A warm smoked haddock ballotine (mousse thingummy) with apple salad for £9.50 was judged a tad rich, though it looked fab to me.
Confit of duck with butternut squash and sage risotto and celeriac puree (£11.75) and a baked cod daily special (£14.50) had both vanished before I could beg a taste, and my foodie (greedy) companions were asking for the dessert menu. One even demolished a slab of sticky toffee pudding (£5.50), though the other lingered over lovely sloe gin jelly with tonic ice (£5.75). Mint teas and coffees were served with glorious chocs, shortbread and brandy snaps (the toffee pudding person also managing three truffles).
Although we all thought the menu marvellous, we disagreed slightly on the décor. My three fellow diners thought the cosmopolitan, modernist makeover a stylish triumph. I would have preferred the stripped-back authentic antique look - the atmosphere of Southwold's Crown Hotel taking a lot of beating in my view (though billowing bills and shrinking portions have rather put me off in recent years).
Sutherland House - where our birthday blow-out cost £140 with service (and all that booze) - is now a place for a serious dinner rather than a light snack. But as Peter Banks says: “Our mission is simply to provide good food in comfortable, contemporary surroundings.”
So, mission accomplished. I will definitely return, especially for celebrations. And this tasteful restaurant is taking its localist commitment further - with a residents' card offering Southwold, Reydon and Walberswick folk a 10 per cent discount.
t Where is it? Sutherland House Hotel and Restaurant, 56 High Street, Southwold; 01502 724544; www.sutherlandhouse.co.uk
t Is it easy to park? On the Common around the corner, or in Victoria Street at the back.
t How about disabled access? Ramped from Victoria St entrance.
t Any veggie options? Yes (e.g. assiette of mushrooms - cooked five ways)
t Should I book? Advisable usually and certainly at weekends.