Eating out in Suffolk: The Northgate at Bury St Edmunds
PUBLISHED: 17:00 28 August 2020 | UPDATED: 17:00 28 August 2020
Feelgood food that’s fresh, colourful, healthy and delicious, served in a relaxed, safe setting in the heart of Bury St Edmunds
In Greig Young’s garden at home there’s a pale-grey playhouse on stilts. A pitched roof is festooned prettily with ‘wisteria’, there’s a white-fenced verandah, a birdbox, even a doorbell and a slide to get back down to ground level. Greig built it during lockdown for Lylah Blossom, his three-year-old daughter.
He also built a grown-up pergola and barbecue area, planted carrots, tomatoes, and way too much cavolo nero. He painted the inside of the (real) house he moved into with his wife Lizzie, and Lylah, just five days before lockdown, too. “Stressful, but we moved in the nick of time. Lockdown feels like an eternity ago already. It had its challenges but it was special to spend so much time with my family.”
Greig is back at the stove now, leading his kitchen team at The Northgate, Chestnut’s restaurant and cocktail bar with rooms in Bury St Edmunds, into the uncharted post-Covid world. White jackets are fresh, knives and energy sharpened, stainless steel benches pristine when we speak, just four days after reopening.
The excess cavolo nero – 40 plants was way too many for the Young family appetite – has found its way to a new kitchen garden. Two of the beds, built by Greig (with watering by Lylah), are set between an exuberant swathe of bee-filled lavender and the shelter of the old red-brick wall that surrounds the terrace. They are thick with bright lettuce, scrambling beans and heavy tomatoes, there are golden-flowered, glossy-skinned courgettes and plenty of purple and green basil. “It’s my minestrone growing!” he jokes.
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A direct line of sight to the beds from the kitchen, across the chef’s table and through a wide-open window joins the dots for chef and diner. It reminds that the food here is about easy-going seasonal flavours, freshness (chefs constantly to-and-fro picking herbs and leaves for a salad on order), and colour. A separate veg patch has African marigolds, fiery orange pom-pom pops between stately silvery-leaved cardoon, large-leaved beetroot, chard, straight-up sweetcorn – and lots of cavolo nero. “I didn’t really plan what to grow,” says Greig. “It’s not perfect, but that’s fine. It brings the garden to life, and customers like to see us chefs using it.” Gluts will be preserved. Above one kitchen bench is a row of Kilner jars rammed variously with cherry plums in elderflower vinegar, turmeric-pickled courgette, sour cherries, salted greengages, the fruits sitting still but potent in their particular pickle. A jar of night-dark black garlic balsamic vinegar bookends the row; this is a punchy line-up of the flavours that are an important feature of Greig’s cooking.
The garden in its fresh or preserved form inspires his new menu. It’s a slightly shorter à la carte of five starters, five main courses, four desserts, and dishes manageable by fewer chefs (three per shift to ensure distance). Gone are the tasting and set menus but, adaptability being a key lockdown lesson, the kitchen will create a seven-course feast should customers ask.
Minestrone is a bowlful of colour and health, the cooked version of what’s going on in the ground just metres away. Beans, vivid-green broad, slender French and diamond-cut runner mix with a tomato broth. Curls of wild garlic pasta made by pastry chef Katie Lawrie give substance – “I love making pasta even more than making bread, so that’s saying something” – and flirty little marigold petals are a sunny suggestion of lemon. Katie’s Pakenham flour bread acts as a warm, bouncy scoop to finish bottom-of-the-minestrone-bowl goodness. For a second-favourite job she gives it a lot of love.
Colour is rife. Crimson beetroot, barbecued whole, is a shiny, sweet orb topped with the white tang of goats curd. Bright green, red-veined leaves wrap round slivers of pickled beetroot; dotted brown croutons anchor it all with crunch. It’s a classic flavour/texture combination: Greig having been classically trained with acclaimed chef Daniel Galmiche at the Vineyard at Stockross, Berkshire, sees no reason to fiddle much with proven combinations.
A starter of lightly smoked trout dances with sunshine yellow and gentle green. The fish is tucked up with a white and golden soft-boiled egg, there’s a perky curry mayo, frills of baby lettuce, edgy pickled cucumber, crunchy roundels of raw young courgette.
A fish main course works deliciously too. The lightest of plaice fillets slips into a puddle of foamy langoustine cream that hides green beans and new potatoes. A fat langoustine, spun round with crisp kataifi pastry delivers a crunchy finish.
And, on the subject of crunch, succumb to an order of rosti chips because the pleasure of heat, fat, salt, potato and a whipped tartare sauce is worth every single calorie consumed.
“We had a table come just for them the other day,” says Greig. “that’s all they wanted!” He’s satisfied with the menu, it feels right. “I used to be quite a technical chef, but I feel more relaxed now, my food is less about showy things, more about what just tastes nice.”
You see it in a parmesan risotto with girolles, the delicate mushrooms a favourite ingredient for this Scottish chef. He scatters the precious buttons generously over the rice, reaching up to his Kilner jar for a spoonful of salted greengages. Sliced, the fruit lifts the dish from the predictable to the memorable. “I’m not really a mushroom risotto kind of chef, but I love girolles, and this is a winner.”
Is it about confidence? Greig’s menu feels awash with confidence. Tempted, even on opening day, to dress up a crème caramel with barbecued white peach, by day four he had pared the dessert back to a glossy, shimmering puck of set milk that’s been infused with fig leaves for a suggestion of coconut. It’s generous, bitter-sweet and needs nothing more than a splash of fig leaf vinegar to have the Greig Young signature.
Bar manager Lewis Dowling’s drinks list mirrors Greig’s approach – the two work closely. “Instead of asking if a guest would like a gin- or vodka-based drink, we ask what flavours they like,” Lewis says. “I’m thinking more like a chef, about seasonality and taste.”
A mulberry mojito is made with berries from the neighbour’s tree, and a sweet-sharp-bubbly Southwold 75 with gin infused with preserved quince. The wine list has been slimmed too, with more emphasis on by-the-glass options from the simplest Sicilian pinot grigio to a sprightly Domaine de la Motte chablis.
Drinks are served at table to comply with Covid regulations, so bar stools have been deployed in a previously unused outdoor space by the chef’s table window. “Best thing we’ve ever done,” says Lewis. “Guests love it.” Sunny days fill the other terrace tables – spaced out of course – ditto seats set in pairs around the garden.
“It feels relaxed,” says Greig, speaking as Paolo Nutini and Ed Sheeran continue their smooth, crooning loop. Having two days properly off – the Northgate is closed Monday and Tuesday – is “a gift” too.
“I already feel the balance, the teams are happy, and I feel I can look after my family and myself better. Maybe we were getting a bit tense before. Now I feel we’ve got that ‘house’ vibe, that this is a place where people can hang out, eat, drink, spend some time.”
He’d like to see a pizza oven on the terrace, perhaps host a paella night. “I reckon our guests would like that. It’d be a lot of fun, don’t you think?”
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The Northgate is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday – thenorthgate.com
FROM THE MENU
Beef tartare, red endive salad, broad beans, black garlic £8
Panzanella salad, summer veg, sourdough, elderflower vinaigrette £5/9
Roasted duck breast, garden plum, glazed carrot, herb butter sauce £22
Mushroom and spinach tart, cabbage, fresh herbs £15
Dark chocolate mousse, espresso caramel, coconut sorbet, cocoa crackling £8
Chilled vanilla rice pudding, roasted strawberry ice cream £7
The wine list opens at £20.50 and there is plenty by the glass from £5.30
Some 2,300 Chestnut customers responded to a July survey asking – among other things – what measures they would like to see in place on reopening. Outside space and fewer tables were priorities, but so too the desire to keep the fun alive in going out.
As a result, masks are not worn by staff, but distance is maintained. There’s hand sanitiser, and the reminder to use it, throughout. Cutlery arrives in sealed envelopes according to the course being served, as does a napkin, so that by the end of a three-course meal, the table is littered with them. Greig agrees it’s an idea that needs refining.
The group’s ‘six measures of safety’ and risk assessment are outlined at chestnutgroup.co.uk/welcome-back.
The Giving Tree, Chestnut’s not-for-profit foundation that made and delivered thousands of free meals to key workers during the height of the pandemic, is to develop new additional purpose as coronavirus starts to recede.
“The pandemic really brought home the importance of looking after colleagues’ wellbeing,” says Chestnut and Giving Tree founder Philip Turner. “It opened my eyes to what we need to do to support our people especially in the aftermath of lockdown.”
Giving Tree fundraising will continue to enable free meals to be delivered to those in need in East Anglian communities, but will also fund a programme designed to ensure the mental and physical wellbeing of Chestnut employees.
For now, fundraising is on pause as teams prioritise the safe reopening of all 11 Chestnut pubs, restaurants and inns. However, Philip is considering channelling a percentage of Chestnut’s net profit to Giving Tree, which operates as an entirely separate company, and running regular fundraising events such as a cycle ride between the Chestnut properties.
Future donations to external events, raffles and fetes will be in the form of Giving Tree vouchers. “The winner will be able to nominate where the amount is spent, something that is infinitely more rewarding and appropriate in these times,” says Philip. And instead of retrospectively reducing prices for room bookings made prior to the government’s cut in VAT, Chestnut’s policy has been to donate two free meals to Giving Tree for each booking.
By the end of July, Giving Tree had donated 25,000 meals to 30 different organisations. Sixty furloughed Chestnut employees volunteered their time during lockdown to liaise with NHS hospitals, care homes, hospices and community charities, and to plan, cook, package and deliver the meals.
“Watching how engaged our people were was incredible,” says Philip. “You realise being happy at work is not only about earning money, there are other things that motivate people. Our charitable enterprise has built a culture of engagement within the business that I had been long seeking to build.”
A £25 donation to Giving Tree provides 10 free meals. Donations can be made at gofundme.com/f/meals-for-our-nhs