In 1958, John Steinbeck penned a note to his friend Chase Horton stating: “I am depending on Somerset to give me the something new which I need.” The writer put down roots for six months in Bruton – the small town where these days “something new” seems to pop up every time I’m there. Hauser & Wirth Somerset was joined last year by country-house hotel The Newt – and at the end of last year came Osip, a restaurant reinvention of Windmill’s hardware store and ironmongers by Michelin-starred chef Merlin Labron-Johnson.
“It doesn’t smell of paraffin any more,” exclaims my mother, a Bruton local whom I’m taking for dinner in the centuries-old room, its thick stone walls so considerable they might be menhirs. My 95-year-old grandfather still talks of a network of tunnels that run under the former ironmongers, in which he and his childhood friends would adventure beneath the town. I mention this to Labron-Johnson on our arrival. “Ah, we’re not allowed down there,” he replies, a hint of youthful disappointment in his eye.
The Devon-born chef was awarded a Michelin star at the age of 24, less than a year after opening Portland in London’s Fitzrovia. Since 2018, he’s been executive chef at The Conduit, the London member’s club devoted to social change, while dreaming up Osip, an intimate, 32-cover dining room that just two weeks after opening is fully booked. The five-course set dinner menu (£49 per head) starts with a plate of two-bite fancies: quail egg mimosas, smoked cheddar puffs, pumpkin financiers and oca de Peru. The latter, Labron-Johnson explains, “is a type of Peruvian tuber. A friend of mine grows them on Dartmoor.”
This typifies Osip’s minimum-miles approach to its ingredients. Vegetables are grown near Ashburton, Devon; Westcombe’s dairy is five miles away in Evercreech; the venison is from Mulberry founder Roger Saul’s Sharpham Park estate – as is the spelt that adds texture to a comforting mushroom and cheddar dish. Drinks, too, have a local flavour, including the Ice Cider (£9) from Julian Temperley’s orchard near Taunton – ideal to sup while grazing on Dorset Blue Vinney cheese, homemade thyme crackers and quince jam from Labron-Johnson’s own kitchen (“I was given 12kg of quince, so I blitzed it in a NutriBullet and reduced it down with plenty of sugar.”)
Standout vegetable dishes include a crown prince pumpkin soup with fire-roasted chestnuts; a comforting combination of carrots, cavolo nero and granola; and a warming bowl of lapsang souchong tea and leek oil broth, served with black treacle and ale bread. Meanwhile, scallops are soaked with roast chicken juices and topped with Jerusalem artichoke – a land-sea combination to be savoured. “Something new which I needed” indeed.