Tom celebrates a West Country eaterie worth visiting after lockdown, and suggests ways to help others get through a very tough year.
28 Market Place, a restaurant in the Somerset town of Somerton, had the misfortune of opening in January this year. Rather like a plucky dinghy, bouncing merrily across the choppy bay, only to motor straight into the eye of the perfect storm. But the restaurant hasn’t just survived the tempest – it has thrived, despite it.
Sure, owners Ben and Vanessa Crofton have a gilded front-of- house CV: The Square, The French Laundry, Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Head chef Dan Fletcher shares a connection with The Square, working under Phil Howard, as well as the likes of Tom Kitchin, and Tommy Banks. Starry stuff, but the focus here is resolutely laid back.
With its gleaming open kitchen, green tiled floor and lamps wearing huge wicker shades, the main room is as packed as is legally possible, meaning we’re decanted into a smaller room next door. There’s still plenty of space to stretch and spread out. Service has an intrinsic confidence that doesn’t require the constant barrage of statements about concepts and provenance. Just eat, drink and be merry.
The cooking, though, is near flawless with a menu that cleaves tightly to the seasons, while allowing flavours, rather than labels, to do the talking. Ingredients are local where possible and up to scratch. There’s mackerel, as fresh as a sea breeze, with diced cucumber, roasted fennel and fiery blobs of horseradish. Then curls of squid nestling alongside the lightest of gnocchi, and an intense, roasted red pepper sauce. Wood-charred cauliflower is draped in lardo, and scattered with girolles. Every ingredient has its place, with nothing showy or extraneous.
A fat finger of immaculate brill sits atop a pile of buttery clams. Wild venison is flanked by beetroot, apples and celeriac, the quintessence of late West Country autumn. Better still, a homemade salt beef sandwich, lustily truffled, wedged between slices of salty, oil-soaked focaccia. It renders us momentarily speechless.
Presentation is flawless, yet never fussy, with the bold and the subtle sitting side by side, in flavour and texture alike. The dishes range across Europe, unfettered by borders, but are united by an excellence of technique. Because 28 Market Place is that rarest of things: a relaxed, entirely unpretentious local country restaurant cooking impeccable food that just happens to stir the soul.
For five-star home delivery…
The Ambassador General Store offers a selection of ready-to-cook meals from the people behind Gymkhana, Brigadiers and Trishna. All the ingredients are beautifully packaged, with instructions on separate cards. The butter chicken is exceptional, as are the wild boar vindaloo, marinated prawns and lamb chops. Deliveries nationwide on Fridays, ambassadorgeneralstore.com
Gary Usher is chef-proprietor of Elite Bistros, including Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle and Hispi, all cracking places to eat. Now you can order his excellent food at home. Choose from the likes of braised octopus (below), sticky lamb neck, braised featherblade of beef, sumac roasted cauliflower and white chocolate mousse. Matching wines, too. elitebistros.com
My shout out to help out
At participating restaurants every November and December, a voluntary £1 is added to the diners’ bills, then passed on to homeless charities. This year this essential income stream will be massively reduced. So please, if you can, give generously. To find out more, go to streetsmart.org.uk, or donate at justgiving.com/streetsmart.