PUBLISHED: 12:07 07 April 2015 | UPDATED: 12:07 07 April 2015
It's three decades since Regis Crépy brought some French flair to the award winning Great House in Lavenham. Tessa Allingham discovers what keeps him there
Thierry Pennec is ironing. Head bent close to the table, he presses out creases in the fresh cloth.
He adjusts the drop, nudges chairs into a precise position, stands back to check his work, tugs, tweaks.
“Years of practice!” he grins, satisfied, moving briskly to the next table.
It has, indeed, been years. Thierry, general manager at the Great House, Lavenham, has been one of Régis Crépy’s loyal team for 15 years and his genuine smile, infallible recognition of regulars, and warm welcome to newcomers is invariably the first impression guests have of this gracious place.
Celebrations are under way this year to mark 30 years since Régis and Martine Crépy bought the 15th century restaurant-with-rooms in the medieval wool town of Lavenham, having managed it for three years for the previous owners.
The couple have an anniversary programme of events including a Bordeaux wine tasting and dinner in May, a Call My Bluff wine challenge in October, and a Champagne and black tie dinner in November. The highlight of the year will be a charity dinner and raffle in June in support of East Anglian Children’s Hospices (EACH). They hope to raise £30,000. Tickets for the dinner sold out quickly, though there is still time to buy raffle tickets, Régis insists.
We meet in chilly early February. Régis is tanned, relaxed after a week’s skiing, but happy to be back with a nearly full dining room this Wednesday lunchtime.
“The years have flown by,” he says. “I remember arriving in England in 1983 aged 28. We never intended to stay.” England was a stopping point for him and Martine, a place to master English before continuing to the USA, but the arrival of the couple’s daughter, Amélie, and the trickiness of the language meant they stayed. And stayed.
A generation on, the Great House appears with unfailing regularity in the sort of Sunday supplement pieces that list the dreamiest boutique hotels in Britain, or tables worth driving beyond the M25 for. It has accumulated an abundance of accolades. Régis resists listing them with a Gallic shoulder shrug (“It would be very boring”), but his assiduous PR makes sure I know about the three awards won in a single heady month last September – the Editor’s Choice Gourmet award in the Good Hotel Guide, the AA Inspectors’ Choice award in that guide’s ‘restaurant with rooms’ category, and the inaugural Fabulous Food award in Alastair Sawday’s British Hotel Guide.
“The point is,” Régis says, “that after 30 years we are still as driven as we were at the beginning to stay at the top of the game, to look forward. I am focused, driven towards quality. I am not ready to stop.”
Indeed, he wants to expand his hospitality interests and is hoping to set up a brand new business with his 24-year-old son, Alexander, currently a manager at a London branch of the Argentinian restaurant group, Gaucho. Plans are still vague, but Régis talks about a wine bar concept serving light, sharing plates.
“I’m sure that’s the future of eating out. I don’t think fine dining like we have here is the future.”
Does this make him sad? Not in the slightest. He’s forward-looking, he reminds me.
We talk Scandinavian food – at the time of our meeting, Scandinavian teams have dominated the Bocuse d’Or, a tough international culinary competition.
“Scandinavian food is about sweet/sour, marinating, brining, smoking, salting. It’s a way of cooking that’s very clean, light. Food is seared quickly, or served raw, or cooked at low temperatures. If you’d given that to diners 30 years ago they would have sent it back, but people love it now.
“Our menu here is based on classic French cooking, but that doesn’t mean we can’t innovate. We absorb influences all the time from this country, Europe, Asia, Africa.” He indicates the fennel ice cream that comes as a refreshing, palate-cleansing side to a starter of wild line-caught sea bass that has in turn been ‘scented’ with star anise and dill. “We wouldn’t have had that on the menu 30 years ago”.
Among the spring starters is a carpaccio of hand-dived scallops with vanilla olive oil and pink peppercorn. It sings with a Granny Smith apple sorbet, and lime olive oil and vanilla dressing.
Régis has said many times that he’s not interested in food fashion. He’s interested in flavour, colour, balance and contrast, whether it’s achieved with classic recipes and ingredients, or cutting edge ones. Thankfully, his long-standing, talented head chef, Enrique Bilbault, leads a brigade that buys into the ethos fully.
Régis enthuses about Enrique’s homely ‘pot au feu’ on the spring menu, the beef chuck braised slowly in a rich Merlot wine sauce with humble carrots, turnips and potatoes. Similarly classic are a fillet of pork, partnered with prunes in Armagnac, and a mascarpone and celeriac remoulade, cod with a beurre blanc, and venison with a rich red wine sauce and confit quince.
Rosemary-marinated lamb saddle is from local farmer Tim Partridge. The lamb is eight months old and grass-fed – whisper-soft and as meltingly tender as if it were the finest piece of fillet steak. The beef, a ‘côte à l’os’ rib that is deftly carved at the table, cuts like butter before being served with a classic gratin dauphinois and béarnaise sauce. It’s Scottish Limousin, I’m told, and has been hung for 35 days to concentrate the flavour.
The mainly French cheeseboard, elevated by one critic to “the best in England” is not to be missed. There’s a vast array – thankfully the Great House waiters are knowledgeable and ready with advice. You can choose pungent Epoisses, unctuous Mont d’Or, tangy Roquefort, an ash-covered pyramid of Valençay, nutty Comté. In a nod to local cheese there is some Suffolk Gold on offer.
Puddings are unashamedly classic. A rum baba is light, rum-drenched with a wink to warmer climes thanks to the confit pineapple, while an indulgent honey and thyme crème brulée is everything it should be, and a dark chocolate fondant fulfills every chocoholic’s fantasy.
You might even be lucky enough to taste Régis’ new lemon tart. Without trace of irony, Régis explains that his is the best – or was until he tasted one better on a recent trip to France. “Very light, very tasty, tangy, the texture of…” he trails off, in search of the precise word. “I went home and worked on improving my tart.”
Régis has four lemon tart recipes, two French, one Swiss and one English. The secret to to the fifth tart recipe? “I cracked it! It was the egg whites. We now use 10 in every tart and mine is the best again. It’s delicious, like a cloud of tanginess on your tongue.”
Régis smiles, as if appreciating his masterly command of the English language. It’s a skill that has been 30 years in the refining, and, like the restaurant he runs, will no doubt go on improving with time.