There is something rather gratifying about having followed the British restaurant scene over the past couple of decades. It is akin to watching a family grow up: seeing chefs one vaguely remembers as callow youths, podding mounds of broad beans backstage, now proudly on the passes of their own kitchens.
Take Lyle’s (first picture), for instance. Chef and co-owner James Lowe was once the sous-chef at St John Bread and Wine, under Tom Pemberton, now chef/proprietor of Hereford Road. His Shoreditch venture, with fellow Bread and Wine alumnus John Ogier, sticks – in decor terms at least – fairly rigidly to the starker-than-Starck St John aesthetic: bare floors and tables, square white pillars and a high, robustly industrial ceiling.
The menu, though, dares to stray from St John’s gospel. It is written in the same terse style – “lamb breast, anchovy and kale”; “monkfish and sea purslane” – but Lowe’s cooking is a little cheffier. His offering includes an umami-rich, almost jellied smoked-eel broth that clings to the palate; tartare of beef that cleverly includes mussels for savour; “blood cake” (black pudding) sharpened with pickled elderberries; and roasted beetroot with cobnuts and goat’s cheese.
The garnishes – many foraged – are more artful than at St John and there is an air of bearded studiousness. I chose à la carte at lunch; dinner, however, is a no-choice, five- or six-course affair. Lowe is a serious talent and Lyle’s is a serious restaurant.
Family trees grow outside London, too. I first met Robin Hutson – whose hotels in the New Forest (Lime Wood and The Pig) have breathed new life into the English country-house hotel – shortly after he opened Hotel du Vin in Winchester. Good, bistro-style food, a splendid wine list and a willingness to approach the hotel business from the guests’ point of view – torrential showers, Egyptian bed linen and fresh milk, rarities 20 years ago – thoroughly endeared the place to me, and his recent ventures have the same hallmarks: I even recognised some of the staff at the latest arrival to The Pig’s litter, The Pig on the Beach (second picture), perched atop Dorset’s beautiful Studland Bay.
Hutson kindly invited me for dinner: we feasted on Portland crab with fennel from the new walled garden, cockles cooked in local cider, sweet lobster from the bay, and juicy lamb cutlets from the Isle of Purbeck. It was all magnificent, even if I was being spoilt rotten. Order from its “25 Mile Menu” and you will not be disappointed: the produce is immaculately local, the setting beautiful and the staff, well, like those at Lyle’s, they come from a good family.