Pub trio firmly anchored in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 13:47 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 13:47 28 April 2015
Tessa Allingham meets Bart Bisbal, the man running three of the county's best loved pub-restaurants
Monks Eleigh is one of those Suffolk villages that warrants snail’s pace driving – it’s too pretty to whizz through unaware.
You have to take time to gaze at the picturesque, pastel-coloured cottages, many thatched, most with generously flowered, lovingly tended gardens. This is a place where the church bells are rung by a dedicated team of volunteers, where you can do a sewing course, enjoy the charming Englishness of a June village fete, shop in the volunteer-run community shop – or push the heavy door of the local pub and enjoy a meal and a pint.
The Swan, butter-yellow on the outside, its name painted on the sunny wall, is glowing under the new ownership of Exclusive Inns. The company runs three Suffolk pubs, the Swan joining the Angel at Stoke by Nayland and the Anchor at Nayland in March 2014. The pub was closed briefly before reopening last September with new slate floors, tartan-covered bucket chairs, spotty-topped stools, plenty of homely brick, original beams and brightening glass. There’s a spacious bar area, separate from the dining room, and a few tables and chairs on the outside patio. The aim is to run a true ‘local’, as general manager Bart Bisbal said at the opening: “I hope this pub will become the sitting room of the village.”
Cosmetically refreshed, the Swan is now focusing on building a reputation for classy pub food for locals and village visitors under the calm, capable guidance of executive chef Mark Allen. He works across the Angel and the Swan, devising menus appropriate to the character of each pub. At the Swan Mark has dared to revive that once-maligned pub staple, the basket meal.
“We’re doing catch of the day with triple cooked chips and pea puree and pie of the day with fresh vegetables and mash.”
Plus there’s a choice of a la carte dishes including breast of roast duck, smoked bacon, savoy cabbage, rosti, with a blackberry sauce or corn fed chicken supreme, bubble and squeak galette, roast onion, foraged mushroom served with a thyme gravy, or how about their classic 8oz Aberdeen Angus beef burger, cheese, bacon, brioche bun, hand cut chips?
On a typical Saturday evening the place is serving around 50 meals, 60 on a Sunday lunchtime with children under ten eating free with an adult meal.
Ingredients at the Swan – and the other two pubs – are carefully sourced. Kings Lynn-based produce company, Alfie’s, delivers fruit and vegetables, meat is either from Chelmsford-based Knights Meats or Direct Meats in Colchester, especially for Blythburgh pork, while fish is from M&J Seafood.
Mark wants to take the Swan along similar lines to the AA rosette - and Good Breakfast award – Angel Inn, the company’s first acquisition four years ago. Group general manager Bart Bisbal describes the food here as “finer dining” rather than “fine dining”.
“The Angel used to have a great food reputation, but it had dipped. We are bringing it back up and we’ve really changed its fortunes.” This is a place to try pressed pigs head terrine, pickles, apple puree, followed perhaps by a robust trio of local venison (loin, suet pudding, crispy terrine) with swede mash, honey glazed carrots and game jus, or a lighter option of buttery pan-seared sea bass with spinach linguine and sauté garlic prawns. Typical of the pudding menu is a chocolate torte and Seville orange sorbet, or a fashionably retro lemon meringue pie.
While the Swan has a more contemporary feel, the 16th century Angel embraces a more traditional look with heavy beams, plenty of leather, and a soot-blackened inglenook fireplace where a proper fire makes all the right crackling sounds and warms the room deliciously. Upstairs, six refurbished ensuite bedrooms provide AA five-star accommodation.
The Anchor, meanwhile, will remain a family-friendly pub, under the watchful eye of head chef Ed Campbell, with a relaxed menu (think good burgers, fish and chips and signature dishes from the on-site smokehouse), and the summery appeal of a Stour riverside location.
Exclusive Inns, set up in 2011, has grown – incongruously it might seem – out of Exclusive Locations, which owns and operates Sail Lofts, a high-end self-catering operation in St Ives, Cornwall. Bart explains: “We wanted to expand from self-catering and looked to buy a pub in the Cotswolds, but that fell through. When the Angel came up it was too good an offer to refuse, so we ended up in Suffolk. Luckily, the Anchor was on the market soon after, and the Swan came up last year.”
Bart spends a lot of time shuttling along winding Suffolk lanes between the three properties.
“I try and be around as much as possible. This is a small family business with the emphasis on good service and good food.” He should be able to run the operation with ease given his hospitality background. He’s had stints at the Savoy and Dorchester hotels in London, worked as executive chef for the now-defunct Chez Gerard group, run hotels in Spain (he is originally from Majorca) and France, and more recently been in charge of various East Anglian hotels.
Will he add a fourth pub to the portfolio?
“No, the focus now is to concentrate on what we’ve got. We have a lovely small collection and we want to make sure they are all successful and stable.”